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Military service

05/31/04 12:00AM By Kenneth Davis
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(Host) Commentator Kenneth Davis reflects on Memorial Day and the meaning of military service.

(Davis) I dodged a bullet during Vietnam. In a manner of speaking, that is. I was among the lucky ones who turned eighteen in the year that America stopped drafting its kids. It was 1972, and even though the war dragged on cruelly for years, mine was the first draft class exempt from that dreaded wait to see what the Selective Service lottery would bring.

I can still picture that big drum of numbered balls they used to pick the draft order. It was a perverse Bingo parlor where life and death were the prizes.

Like most of my friends, I didn't want to go. The war was wrong. The army was the Evil Empire. The end of the lottery saved me from a short list of bad choices - the draft, enlisting, running away. But as much as I detested that war, I have always wondered if I missed something.

It's not that I wish I had gone to Vietnam. But as the son of a veteran who fought in North Africa and Italy, and as a kid who grew up on a steady diet of John Wayne movies, the idea of military service appealed to me. As a boy, I thought the army was about foxhole brothers ridding the world of Nazis. And later, as a historian writing about America s past conflicts, I found the human face behind the countless acts of sacrifice that lie deep in America's soul. Wearing a uniform demands courage, and many of us take too lightly the tradition of devoted duty that has protected our liberties at such great cost.

Recently, this twinge of regret has come home to roost. Again, we fight a somewhat dubious battle, and my own son just turned eighteen. Then came the dustup over the President's National Guard service, which prompted a lot of children to ask their baby-boomer fathers, "What did you do in the war, daddy?"

The question took on new meaning for me when a young friend asked me to take part in his commissioning ceremony this Memorial Day weekend, and I proudly agreed. But his request once again stirred up my mixed feelings about military life and the issue of what I may have missed. Not some romantic illusion about glorious battle. But of belonging to something larger than oneself. Or the notion of shared sacrifice that you see in the deep connection between Senators McCain and Kerry - members of that Band of Brothers whose bond transcends bitter partisanship.

For all of recorded time, we have honored war and warriors - perhaps to a fault. I understand that the "last full measure of devotion," as Lincoln called it, is often the price of freedom. But I also know that in pinning those bars on that young man, my fervent is still that those virtues we associate so often with war - brotherhood, honor, duty, sacrifice - could be displayed as profoundly in peace.

This is Kenneth Davis of Dorset.

Kenneth Davis is an author and historian.
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