Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Old Men, Old Ideas, Young Recruits

I saved an important story in 2007 by Jeffrey Fleishman, a “Los Angeles Times” staff writer. It was about Erwin Kowalke.

Kowalke is a member of the German War Graves Association. He’s 64 years old and for 43 of those 64 years he’s been searching for World War II skeletons, German and Russian soldiers who fought near Berlin in the last days of the war. By Kowalke’s estimate, he’s excavated over 20,000 bodies. I guess you could say he knows something about war.

Here’s what Erwin Kowalke knows. "In these bones,” he says, “you see what war is like. I know war now. I'll tell you what it is. War is young men killing other young men they do not know on the orders of old men who know one another too well."

Two old men, Robert L. Galbraith, MSgt, USAF (Ret) and Robert G. Huckabee, took me to task for my Forum letter on May 22, 2009. In that letter, I linked the absurdity and tragedy of enlistment programs that result in 60 year olds dying and teenagers being pushed to fill military recruitment quotas.

Both of these old men out rank me. During my service in the military I only managed to reach the rank of Sp4th Class. To Galbraith and Huckabee I say, I’m glad I’m a civilian and not in uniform again. I know from experience that it’s easier to speak your mind in worn tennis shoes than in spit shined combat boots.

Along with Msgt Galbraith, I did my part in winning the Cold War. From Limerock to South Lyme, I helped defend the skies over the golf courses of Connecticut. On my watch, the streets of Hartford were never attacked.. I helped make “The Insurance City” safe for the coming of AIG.

Robert G. Huckabee’s recent duty and service in Iraq is on a whole other level than mine. But both of these old men deserve the nation’s thanks and respect for their service. They certainly have mine.

But as is often the case, the view from the foxholes on the battlefield and the pigeon holes of the military establishment is limited. When your head is down, when you’re trying to stay alive–physically and psychologically–one’s attention can understandably take on a narrow focus. Operating under the chain of command and participating in endless drills can force march the mind into authorized channels. The selfless support of your comrades in arms can indelibly mark the circumference of one’s identification, the range of understanding.

Who would be surprised by the fact that so many vets, not just Galbraith and Huckabee, but vets from all wars, carry their military experiences, peak experiences in so many lives, home with them when they shed uniforms for civies? Who would be surprised that the military experiences remembered by old men give rise to the giving of orders of support to young men to follow the course they themselves once took?

I should add here that, in general, I respect the old. I’m old. Old grumpiness, not to be escaped, is earned through the perspective of experience. Old ideas, though appearing decrepit in form, often prove supple, useful. Old wisdom, such as it is, can have enlightening depth to it.

But today high schools are staffed with military recruiters. Slick big budget “Join Now!” advertising aimed at teenagers fill movie houses and TV screens. And old men living with old stories and older myths far too often provide youth with not quite the whole truth of war.

President Bush listened to old men and the result was disastrous. President Obama is listening to old ideas and tragedy continues to unfold. We should be listening to Erwin Kowalk, an old man who speaks the stories told by the bones of the young.

[from Terre Haute Tribune Star, June 14, 2009]