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Patriotic guilt

I didn't enlist, and maybe I lack the conviction of soldiers in Iraq. Or do they lack my good fortune?

November 03, 2005|Oren Rawls | OREN RAWLS is opinion editor and European bureau chief of the Forward.

A YEAR AGO, a guy from my hometown drank himself silly and then ran buck-naked out of his house, screaming that he was going to kill himself. He had just gotten his orders to return to Iraq, where he had already done a tour.

I can't say I knew the guy, even though we're about the same age and both grew up in Stratford, a medium-sized factory town on the edge of Connecticut's Gold Coast. And I certainly can't say I knew what it's like being the guy. He enlisted; I didn't.

Every once in a while, though, I wonder what might have been, had circumstances been just a little different. Every once in a while -- like last week, when the 2,000th soldier was killed in Iraq.

What if, for instance, my parents hadn't gone into debt to provide me with a private-school education and the benefits it affords? What if, instead, I had taken the path followed by many in my hometown and pursued my American dream through the military? And what if I was writing these words not from the comfort of my office but from a forward operating base somewhere in the Sunni Triangle?

Perhaps this all can be written off as a neurotic intellectual exercise. But the persistent rumors of a draft (unlikely as one might be) do little to reassure.

After all, at 28 I'm still young enough to whip myself into some kind of shape, if Uncle Sam so orders. And I look the part of the soldier, or so I fancy: I'm over 6 feet, shave my head down to uniform stubble every week and have worn the same wraparound Oakley shades since I was a teenager.

I even come from a military family, of sorts. My old man, a Navy SEAL, served in the Persian Gulf War. My grandfather flew B-29 Superfortress bombers in World War II. I am the first male in my family in three generations who has not had to strap on boots.

Even my mom has served. Like everyone else in her native Israel, she did her mandatory two years in the army. One of my cousins there, a lawyer, spends a couple weeks a year with his reserve bomb-disposal unit.

Another cousin, an industrial engineer, does his reserve duty as an artillery reconnaissance officer. Both of my uncles have seen action in several wars. And the roll call goes on and on, on both sides of my family.

Most of my relatives, like me, have a negative opinion of the current government. But even though we're of one mind politically, I can't fight the feeling that somehow my words ring a tad hollow -- and will continue to do so as long as we're at war and I'm not serving.

Now, I'm sure a fair number of those in the military enlisted out of a lack of other options. I know full well that relatively few in my generation buy into the "for flag and country" bit, and that my sense of patriotic guilt would probably make for a good joke or two in the service. And the honest truth is that nothing less than a full-fledged draft could get me to say goodbye to my wife's puppy-dog brown eyes and put on a uniform.

Maybe I just lack the conviction of the soldiers deployed in Iraq. Or maybe they've just lacked my good fortune. Which of the two is the case, I'm not quite sure.

But what I am certain of is that when 2,000 of my fellow Americans have already been killed in Iraq and another 15,000 injured, I'll be damned if I content myself with tying a yellow ribbon to a tree.

At the very least, when I read about the next soldier killed in combat, I'll make sure to take five minutes out of my privileged day to wonder: There but for the grace of God go I, drunk and naked, screaming bloody suicide at the thought of going back to Iraq.

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