I wish I had served alongside those who did

Like many people from my generation, I did not serve in the armed forces of our great country. The draft was eliminated before I turned 18, and merrily I traipsed off to college. 

In hindsight, I wish I had enlisted and served before embarking on a college career. I think I would have been more mature had I waited and maybe, just maybe, I would have learned a thing or two about how the world really works. It might be an overstatement to say I completely regret not having served, but it’s an itch I never scratched and it still bothers me to a degree.

Because of that, I’m intrigued by stories of genuine heroes who sacrificed everything. If the streaming services’ never-ending array of WWII films and documentaries is any indication, I’m not alone in my fascination. (And please don’t bother colorizing those old films; they’re better in black and white.) In recent months, I’ve read several excellent books about global conflicts, and it’s scary that World War III  seems to be looming around the corner.

The book “Countdown 1945” by Chris Wallace was excellent, regaling the reader with an eye-opening –- and horrific — glimpse at the people who developed the atomic bomb. The terrific film “Oppenheimer” delves into much the same topic, but Wallace’s book provides more detail about the people and the machinations behind our venture into nuclear warfare.

Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy (“Fall of Giants,” “Winter of the World” and “Edge of Eternity”) is historical fiction tracing five interconnected families – Russian, German, English, Welsh and American— through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler and WWII, the racially and politically tumultuous 1960s and all the way to the late 1980s. The mixture of real-life leaders and fictional characters added greatly to the story and helped keep my addled brain focused on the chronology of events.

Because I never served, I turn to these films and books as a way to understand what the world’s soldiers endure in war, although I’m very aware that the real thing is exponentially worse. My father was a radio operator on a WWII bomber flying out of England, and he told once that the reason he didn’t talk about his time in the service was because “It wasn’t at all like a John Wayne movie.” His plane would be one of hundreds taking off on certain days, and he knew that half of those planes and their crews might not return. He’d watch the bombs fall and knew that a lot of innocent people were about to die.

I can’t imagine the terror these young men experienced daily. In World War I, many lived in filthy trenches, sharing their space with rats and other vermin. Imagine what our Navy personnel witnessed at Pearl Harbor, and I can’t fathom how the survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki managed to function after miles of their cities were flattened and relatives were vaporized in a matter of minutes. The brave men who fought in the “police action” in Korea and the ill-advised Vietnam conflict saw atrocities no human should see. Same goes for the men and women who served – and continue to serve — in the quagmire of the Middle East. It’s no wonder so many return home scarred for life.

And yet, there’s a large part of me that wishes I had served alongside them. I know I would have benefitted from the training and discipline, and much of me wishes I could say I did my part to keep our country strong and safe. I salute those who served, and honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Like many people my age, I know now that  I took the easy way out. And as great as my life has been, I sometimes wonder how much better it could have been had I stepped up and wore the uniform.