For Veterans’ Day

For Veterans’ Day

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“I study war so that my children may study peace and my grandchildren may study poetry.” —John Adams

It was on a cool March morning nearly 20 years ago that I rolled into the visitors’ center of the United States Military Academy, better known as West Point. I was there to meet up with my UMASS teammates for the first race of that year’s collegiate racing season. After collecting everyone, we would drive onto the campus and begin warming up for the day’s opening event, an uphill time trial through the campus of West Point.

With nothing else to do until my somewhat disorganized band of teammates arrived, I decided to tour the visitors’ center. As any visitors’ center should, it filled me with a sense of grandeur for the place I would soon witness.

During my visit I ran across a quote—the epigraph above—by John Adams. It stopped me in my tracks. I would revisit the display featuring the quote three more times and ultimately, I would commit it to memory.

You see, at the time, I was pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Massachusetts. My father had served in the Marine Corps in peace and later went to college on the G.I. Bill. My grandfather did not serve in World War II, but one of my great uncles did. That quote spelled out the privilege of my life and filled me with a sense of obligation. If I was to pursue the arts, I should recognize the fortune of my circumstance; I should apply the whole of my self to the endeavor.

Later, when I entered the campus and the imposing granite structures shaded my path, I commented to a friend that West Point was a place of such precise majesty that I would easily have defended it to my last heartbeat. It occurred to me that for the students there, West Point was one place you just didn’t screw up.

Back then, my fitness was unimpressive but Adams’ quote instilled in me fresh purpose, that whatever I did, I would do with the whole of my will. I can recall few races in my life where I dug as deep as I did during the uphill time trial that morning (an ascent of 750 feet in only 1.75 miles) or the crit that afternoon. I remember getting tunnel vision at the top of the wall in the crit and sprinting through the start/finish with everything I had just not to get dropped.

At the end of that day, I had an entirely new sense of what bike racing really is.

That Red Kite Prayer exists, that I’ve been able to choose to write about cycling for nearly 20 years, that I was able to choose to study poetry, that my father believed in me and my abilities enough to suggest I go to graduate school and that he served his country in a time of peace, I owe, we owe, to those who served our country when times were most dire, when the price of freedom was often mortal.

 

Originally published November 11, 2009.

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13 comments

    1. Shawn

      I read the essay you linked, and despite your numerous disclaimers I found it — especially on Veteran’s Day — to be a refreshingly well-written example of disrespectful poor taste.

    2. Parker

      Shortly before the fourth reunion of the Marine lieutenants from the class commissioned October 1966, I came across a Times article about Ludwig Wittgenstein that’s relevant to CaliRado’s essay as well as Shawn’s response:

      https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/18/opinion/wittgensteins-confession-philosophy.html

      Before he became a prominent academic philosopher, Wittgenstein had volunteered for one of the most dangerous infantry jobs during WWI, forward observer in No Man’s Land. The article’s author described Wittgenstein’s friends as explaining that he “sought to facilitate character change by engaging in activities ‘that would change the way he looked on his life and on himself,’ including public displays of courage.” While volunteering for Marine OCS all of us had been told we’d almost certainly serve in Vietnam after graduation, and I wondered whether any classmates would offer similar explanations. No one with whom I spoke during our reunion sought danger to the extent Wittgenstein did. But most, many of whom had been college athletes, had volunteered for OCS to, in the words of many, “prove” themselves.

      I don’t know why Pat Tillman in particular volunteered, but I think it reasonable to assume that, among other reasons, most people volunteer for combat to prove themselves. CaliRado’s essay denies disrespecting such people several times. But CaliRado thinks Tillman’s “legacy should be examined . . . [as a] simplified representation of a highly dangerous, uniquely American mix of arrogance, aggression, and tragedy.”

      That this mix was dangerous is obviously true regarding Americans in Vietnam. Very few of us were fluent in the language and customs of Vietnam. Or took seriously the facts that the Vietnamese had effectively resisted Chinese invasions for hundreds of years; that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and unpopular; and that Wayne Morse had explained in open Senate debate 6 August 1964 how President Johnson’s main justification for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution involved phony evidence:

      https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5769537

      That this mix was dangerous is also true regarding Americans in Iraq, where Tillman served the first of his two combat tours. Very few were fluent in the languages and customs of Iraq. Or took seriously the sectarian divisions there; or the fact that President Bush’s justifications for invading Iraq involved evidence described as phony by many reliable authorities, as summarized here:

      https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/12/leadup-iraq-war-timeline/

      Tillman himself was one who did recognize and criticize these problems regarding the American war in Iraq. He and his brother Kevin had volunteered for service together in Afghanistan after 9/11, but were first sent to the subsequently begun war in Iraq. Which, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article, Pat described as “so fucking illegal”:

      http://mediastudy.com/articles/av11-10-05.html

      Kevin later explained “Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.”

      https://www.truthdig.com/articles/after-pats-birthday-2/

      CaliRado apparently did not fully research Pat’s thoughts about Iraq or Kevin’s explication of them. What CaliRado did do is rightly point out that America’s military and media have “manipulated” Pat’s legacy so as to reinforce “a culture that outwardly encourages personal sacrifice while comfortably judging the world through television sets in the safety of warm living rooms.”

      In my opinion, Shawn is wrong to view CaliRado’s essay as an “example of disrespectful poor taste.” Instead, it strikes me as a somewhat narrow but legitimately thought-provoking argument that socially endorsed “valor and honor” are sometimes manipulated by the American government for nefarious purposes. Which I think is always relevant for Americans to consider, but especially on Veterans Day.

    3. Parker

      Clarification: What made Wittgenstein’s service different from that of the other Marines from my OCS class is that, as indicated in the linked article, he volunteered for a job “where his life was constantly in danger.” Many classmates volunteered for jobs in Vietnam where their lives were in danger. And many earned medals for valorous service. What they didn’t do is to volunteer for constant danger.

    4. Shawn

      That’s a thoughtful and well-reasoned post, Parker. And thanks for your service.

      If I had read CaliRado Cyclist’s essay as an attack on American government for propagandizing Tillman’s service for nefarious purposes, then I’m sure we would agree about much of what you wrote.

      But I read the essay differently. Certainly it mentioned “glamorized warrior images,” and it highlighted how sports media promotes and sanitizes militaristic violence. But it didn’t suggest those things are the result of misguided government marketing. Rather, I read the essay as directly attacking the motives of the persons who choose military service. According to CaliRado Cyclist, “the best soldiers” are driven to peacetime military service to “satisfy some kind of psychological urge for structure or violence” that overcomes a rational person’s duties to his family and society. CaliRado Cyclist moralizes that a person — Tillman serving as a useful an example — who chooses military service “would ideally put these obligations above his own short-term personal motivations.”

      Maybe CaliRado Cyclist is right. But attacking the motivations of those who serve on the one day set aside each year to honor those who serve is, in my opinion, distasteful.

    5. Parker

      You make a good point, Shawn, that part of CaliRado’s essay criticized Tillman’s choice to value his military service in a way that could, and did, jeopardize his marriage service. The same was true of the 53% of my OCS classmates who were married by the time of their Vietnam deployments. I didn’t inquire with anyone, but I assume that a significant factor in this choice for many was associated with the old epigram about love and honor. That said, 30% of our class became KIA or WIA. Yes, it can be viewed as distasteful to warn future generations about this danger within the old epigram. But also, I think, as due diligence. I think CaliRado went out of their way to emphasize the latter view with respect to what they think are “the core themes of Armed Forces advertising campaigns.”

      Your concern with Calirado’s comment about “the best soldiers” is that CaliRado thinks many of them volunteer for combat to “satisfy some kind of psychological urge for structure or violence.” Again, no relevant inquiry by me to any classmate regarding this. About violence in particular, however, I’m doubtful Calirado’s right about many classmates. Most did and do strike me as quite average regarding urges for violence. On the other hand, wouldn’t be surprised if most were and are beyond average regarding urges for structure. But so what? Notwithstanding its being susceptible to nefarious manipulation by our government, an urge for structure is not an obvious character flaw. Beyond the fact that we can debate whether most volunteers for combat have such urges, describing them that way doesn’t strike me as distasteful. Perhaps you and I can agree in disputing Calirado’s claim that most soldiers who volunteer for combat have an urge for violence.

    6. Shawn

      “Perhaps you and I can agree in disputing Calirado’s claim that most soldiers who volunteer for combat have an urge for violence.”

      We do. But we apparently disagree on the civility/distastefulness point. That’s OK, because I think we understand and appreciate each other’s counterpoint. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

  1. TJH

    My brother-in-law always ended his letters from oversees with this similar quote:
    “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace”
    Thomas Paine

  2. Scott M.

    A great read and tribute!

    No telling of the history of West Point is complete without noting that General Benedict Arnold, one-time Hero of the Revolution, conspired with Britain’s General Clinton to surrender the fort to the British in 1780. Save for a chance encounter when Arnold’s letter, with final instructions for the attack, was discovered in a messenger’s boot, he would have gotten away with it too.

    It’s impossible to know how history would have transpired had his plan been successful. But in one alternate universe, we’d all be cheering on Team Sky and Ineos. Man, am I ever glad they busted that guy!

  3. TomInAlbany

    My father also served during a time of peace, if the cold war could be considered peaceful. His father remembers German and Russian soldiers roaming the woods when he was a boy during WWI. He emigrated in the ’20s and was 40 when WWII began so… My maternal Grandfather served in WWII. My uncle served in Vietnam. Another uncle served in Korea. I have cousins that served in the ’80s. The military was never my calling and I’m OK with that. But, I know that I have family that have stories – Stories I will never hear.

    I wish them all peace.

  4. Ethan

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Patrick, I’m a Marine Chief Warrant Officer serving overseas. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, I love my job.

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