Andrew L. Pincus: Hasn't America learned yet about war, armchair warriors?

LENOX — My classmates and I were faced with a choice: Enlist or be drafted. Some got deferments for things like medical school but a majority of us, by one route or the other, went.

It was the summer of 1951, one year after war broke out in Korea, six years after World War II. Korea, a remote peninsula that dangled from mainland Asia like an appendix from the gut, meant nothing to us. We served in that war anyway. Not only our own government, but also the United Nations, said stopping aggression was a necessary cause, as it had been in the big war.

Americans have since learned not to trust our government when it wants to start a war. But there was a powerful example before us members of the Class of 1951. Among the 654 of us, 61 were veterans. I stood in awe of the World War vets and what they had accomplished, freeing Europe and silencing Japan. We college boys were so raw and innocent, and they were so sure of what they wanted out of college and life. I let myself be drafted. I would have felt less of a man — less of an American— if I had shirked.

Lost sense of sacrifice

Why dredge up this history now?

Because unlike Donald Trump, with his five draft deferments, abuse of Gold Star families, and sense of sacrifice for having piled up tons of apparently untaxed money, I can be proud of my service. By the luck of the draw, I was sent off to desk duty in occupied Germany, not shot at in Korea. But I learned more during those two years among men unlike me, in a bombed-out country unlike mine, than I learned during two subsequent years in the English department at graduate school.

You don't have to go as far as former Marine general John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, who said those who haven't served in the military are deprived persons. But he's right that there's an abiding sense of satisfaction from the sacrifice, even if you hated every minute of your service. Isn't anger at Trump's sense of self before country at the root of much of the dissatisfaction gripping the country today?

Eisenhower was in the White House back in the `50s. Conformity was the mood as the nation rushed toward prosperity. Vietnam and its stresses were a decade away. Rock and computers were in their infancy. Poverty, racism, drugs and the rest were there, a cancer under the skin, waiting to erupt. We were conservative — oh, so conservative — in our wants and tastes: a job, a house, a family.

And now? The country is divided into warring camps. Things don't work. Politics, culture, justice, the economy — you name it — are skewed toward a privileged few. People on both sides of the political divide sense it. Violence is in the air, in entertainment if not on the street. People are captives of their screens. It's as if we're in a self-driving car careening down the highway with no one at the wheel.

McCain remains heroic

Nobody should have to fight in a war. (Nor should one dangerous man have the power to start a war.) But in an age when technology answers every need except the need to understand, sacrifice becomes a distant goal. It still happens — we saw it in the aftermath of the recent hurricanes, when strangers helped strangers. The old truths enshrined in the Golden Rule live on. They just become harder and harder to discern amid the noise and distraction.

When Trump called John McCain less than a hero for having been captured in Vietnam, every veteran in this country should have stood up and shouted "no!" Whatever his politics, John McCain is forever a hero for surviving five years of captivity and torture in the service of his country. He was a hero again for standing up and saying "no" to the bullying and bluster of Donald Trump.

Haven't we learned the lessons? Wasn't one war in Korea enough?

Eagle classical music writer Andrew L. Pincus is an occasional contributor to the oped page.



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