A few months ago, my grandmother emailed me the link to a Dropbox account. She'd uploaded hundreds of family photos dating back to the 1920s, photos I'd never seen before - photos that showed me an entirely new side to my relatives. I had a blast scrolling through the folders; there's a photo of my great-uncle wearing a cap and short pants in the early 1940s and pictures of Nana, impossibly glamorous, traipising through Europe in the 1950s. There's a school portrait of my mother from 1964 and a candid of my uncle as a teenager in the 1970s with long wavy hair. The photos I paused over the longest, though, were of my grandfather's time in the army as a medical officer.
Pappy's the last person in the world I can imagine holding a gun, let alone shooting one. He's a doctor, a cardiologist, and he's pretty passionate about the fact that, deep down, we're all the same and we shouldn't hurt each other. (There's a story about him giving up his seat on the bus to a black woman in Baltimore in the late 1940s and getting reprimanded for it but not caring, to give you an idea of who Pappy is.) I knew he had served in Korea, but for some reason I didn't realize that he had actually experienced war. I don't remember him ever talking about it while I was growing up - in retrospect, I think I just never asked. Buried in the family photos in the Dropbox account, though, were pictures from his army career. There were posed sepia-toned photos of Pappy in his uniform, the kind that you imagine men giving to their sweethearts before going off to fight, and silly snaps of Pappy goofing around with other men in his unit, and there's one photo of Pappy, standing in profile, looking very serious and aiming a gun at a target off-camera.
I called him yesterday, in honor of Veteran's Day, to ask what it was like to serve in the army. He volunteered for the reserves in 1951 - it was that or be drafted, he told me, and he had been promised that if he volunteered he'd be allowed to finish out his year of residency but he was called to active duty and assigned to Ft. Belvoir hospital earlier than expected - and spent twelve months and one day in Korea at the 171st Evacuation Hospital and at the 3rd and 12th Field POW Hospital. Serving these days must be totally different from serving in the 1950s, I said to Pappy; everyone who was sent to Korea had seen men returning from World War II and knew, intimately, what it meant to go off to fight. I don't think we have that context anymore, I told him. "No," he replied, "we don't - and it's too bad."
Once you’ve served and you’ve seen people wounded and you’ve seen people killed, you come back a very different person. Americans on the whole now can’t appreciate what war is because we’re not affected by it – the war isn’t here and it doesn’t affect everyone. When there was a draft, even though the war wasn’t here, everyone was affected. Everyone knew what it meant to serve and everyone respected war and respected people in the military.
I don’t think most people understand that these days. If we had a draft, we would all understand what it means to go to war in a much more real way and we’d behave very differently. We'd make very different decisions as a country. The past decade would have gone very differently if there had been a draft and if we were all forced to be personally involved.
The army teaches you diversity and tolerance. When there was a draft, everyone had to serve, and it teaches you what the country is all about. I was a Jewish boy from New York and I grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. The army introduced me to all sorts of people I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was a totally new experience. We all had our eyes opened and were more understanding because of it – and we learned more about our country because of it.Thank you, Pappy, for telling me your stories, and thank you to all who have served in the military. I hope that, though I can never truly understand what it's like, we will always respect what you have done and continue to do for our country.