When war hits home


It was a mild day in September, 1991. Like any other day at RAF Lakenheath, a small military base in southeastern England, it probably rained. I don’t remember.

I do remember what my father, a career fighter pilot and director of operations for the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing of the United States Air Force, looked like that day. He was upbeat, as always, warm, not terribly anxious. He was wearing a green flight suit, with my last name stitched to the chest and twin eagles on either shoulder. At times, as he said goodbye, his lips quavered, his eyes watered, if only a little. Behind him was a high barbed wire fence; behind that, rows of aircraft, fighters and transport planes, taking off for a staging area in Saudi Arabia.

People who have never lived on a military installation probably can’t imagine what the roar of a fighter jet taking off sounds like. Compared to a fighter, the sound of an airliner might as well be a snowblower. When a fighter takes off, the roar blanks out all other sound. It vibrates in your chest and pierces your ears. It is as if the world has gone silent. All that remains is the brutal, penetrating noise.

It was hard to hear him speak with that noise in the background, with another plane leaving every minute or so like clockwork. But the feeling was unmistakable, the words almost irrelevant. My dad was going to war.

I don’t think he promised to come back, and he certainly didn’t promise to call. He told me, a frightened sixth grader, to be good to my mother, to work hard, to pray. My mother was crying. I was crying. And the roar continued, the skies filled with the weapons of war and, for the first time in my life, I realized that I could end up fatherless.

I remember days not so different from this Monday, when the anticipation was high and the world could do little but watch and wait. CNN and the newspaper had never been so valuable. And each day they showed more men — more men like my father, standing in a sweltering desert, waiting to become part of history. I wrote to my father compulsively, every day, little details of what I was doing, words of encouragement, useless banter, anything to fill pages. And each day I wondered what was to come.

Fortunately, he did return, even sooner than expected. He fought, got his medals and finished the rest of his career in relative calm.

I am not sure who changed more by the experience — he, already a veteran of Vietnam, or me, still a child, suddenly awakened not only to the awful consequences of human action and national resolve, but moreover, to the very human side of war.

As the president spoke Monday night, I could feel the old tears well up again. Almost 12 years later, that September has never seemed more vivid. When the president speaks of resolve, of freedom-loving people and courageous men and women, I always think first about my dad.

For most of us here, war is theoretical. Whether you support it is as likely to be the result of reflexive adherence to political affiliation as any real deliberation or knowledge. We have the luxury, as I’ve had in a Kennedy School class I’m taking this semester, to call these things “scenarios,” or “games.” We have the luxury of pithy protest without consequences and puerile hawk talk without repercussions. For all but one of us — 2L Scott Smith, already called up from the reserves to fight — our lives will never be the cost paid for our freedom. When we speak of blood on the battlefield and “friendly fire” and the like, we are only tossing about metaphors, convenient phrases usually designed to track with our political affiliation. Such is our life of privilege at this law school, where our words have no cost and our opinions have no price tags. Some of us will become those who would lead, but few if any of us will be those whose lives will be lost.

For me, as I watch the world changed forever from a perch of comfort, war still feels a little less theoretical. War means life and death for people I love, people I know, two generations of my family. “Courage” and “resolve” are not merely the rhetoric of a president. They are at the core of the men and women who do pay, all of them somebody’s son or daughter or wife or husband, committed and confident. These people are not policymakers or shallow pundits. They do not decide their own fate. But what they do decide — and what separates them from almost every one of us — is to believe that this country, and those things for which it stands, those things which many of us disparage when politically convenient, are worth even the ultimate cost. Their mission is not to make political jokes or craft incoherent policies, to criticize our leaders or play political games. Their mission is to enforce the collective will. They do not have the luxury of dissent nor the convenience of remove. For them, the next few weeks will mean pure sacrifice. For them, whatever any one of us may think of this war, this president or this nation, their acts will be pure honor.

I have no interest in rehashing the scores of policy arguments for and against this war, many of which have appeared in these pages. Those arguments are for the classroom. Our men and women are on the battlefield. They do not ask, nor do they require, that our vision of “policy” cohere with the president’s or anybody else’s. What they do ask, and what they deserve, is our respect and our support. For just as I knew, 12 years ago, how badly I wanted my father to come home safely, I hope that the children of these brave men and women, children whose parents may never come home — and certainly will not come home as they were — can say the same of us.

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