As close as we ever came to the Navy


Submarine periscopeWe would drift by the Navy recruiting offices on our bicycles when we were small, and in our ragged old cars when we were older, but we would never approach on foot, in case a grizzled tar emerged and sentenced us to submarine duty in the Black Sea.

Occasionally we would see the tall young recruiter staring out through the door of the office, and sometimes we would spot him in the bakery, but never did we see him anywhere else in town, nor did we ever see him arrive in the morning or leave at night; some of us thought that he lived in the recruiting office, with a hammock slung in the back to remind him fondly of his days at sea.

When we were ten and 12, the thought of joining the Navy was savoury, as it smacked of salt and adventure and ships and exotic girls in faraway ports. When we were 14 and 16 the thought of joining the Navy was still alluring, as a way to startle and dismay our fathers, who had been in the Army or the Marines, some of them surviving wars against Germany and Japan and China.

But when we were 17 and 18, the thought of joining the Navy was both fascinating and chilling, for the war in Vietnam was still seething, and all of us had registered for the draft, as required by law. We crowded around a television one night in March to watch the draft lottery, and some had crowed when their numbers were drawn near the end, and others like me were stunned and frightened when our numbers were drawn early.

All the rest of my life I will remember hearing my number called first among all my friends, and the way they turned to me with complicated messages written on their faces, and the way one boy laughed and started to rag me and then stopped as abruptly as if someone had punched him, which maybe someone had.

The war was winding down then, and automatic inductions had been suspended, and some of us were headed to college and so would almost surely be granted deferments, but still we had to register for the draft, and be assigned induction order, and obtain a draft card from the local draft board.

None of us or our parents or any of the ostensible informed authorities in our city or state or nation knew what would happen with the war; what if China and Russia suddenly decided to roar out from behind their pretended neutrality, and pour millions of men into the war, would we not then be thrown into the fray as soldiers for the Army, unless we took the initiative and chose among the other services?

So it was that we drifted by the Navy recruiting office day after day, that spring and summer, for none of us wanted to be Marines, who died first in wars, or Air Force men, who roasted when their gleaming metal coffins fell from the sky, nor could any of us actually countenance moving to Canada, where people spoke French and adored hockey. We played basketball, we drank beer, we went to the beach, we listened to the radio, we read the papers, we waited for the war to decide what to do with us.

By August, with no word from the draft board, we drifted on into the rest of our lives, some to college and the rest to the first awkward jobs boys do before their work comes to fit and define them as men, if they are lucky. That next April, as my freshman year at Notre Dame was ending, the war ended suddenly, half the world away.

One of the first things I did when I got home in May was to drive past the Navy recruiting office with my friends, for no reason that any of us could articulate.

It was sunset and the office was dark. For some reason we parked and got out and walked to the office and looked in the window. All the furniture was gone and you could see bright patches on the darker paint where a desk and file cabinet and paintings or photographs had been. The only thing left in the room was a telephone on the floor with its cord wrapped meticulously around it and secured with a cleanly cut piece of duct tape.

None of us said a word and for once no one made a joke or snide remark and we got back in the car and got some beer and went to the beach. Later that night around a bonfire someone started to speculate what it would have been like if we had all joined the Navy together and been assigned to the same ship, but no one else took up the thread, and the talk turned back to basketball and girls. That was as close as we ever came to the Navy.

Since then many wars have broken out like boils on the body of the country I love, and I have done my best as a citizen to understand and witness them, and explore beneath the usual excuses and lies; and no man more admires the courage and grace of the tall children sent to war by old men in halls of gleaming wood.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I raged against the virus of war, and accurately enough railed that wars were all about money, as every one of them is. But when I was in my 40s and 50s I came to understand that war will always be with us because it is us; it is a language, a custom, a habit, a tradition, the sport we cannot quit.

When I was young, I thought that men and women in the military were violent and foolish, thirsty for blood and power; now that I am older I understand that they are braver than I ever was, brave enough to admit and acknowledge our ancient addiction, and in many cases do astounding things to bring it to an end; the most eloquent and articulate agents for peace I ever met are those who have been in wars, and the most strident and shrill agents for wanton butchery are those who never knew it.

In my old age, if I am granted that complex gift, my dream is to visit offices recruiting a new sort of service, one that acknowledges the sneer of evil in the world, the snarl of the bully, the preen of the arrogant dolt who thinks he knows the mind of God, but wields new weapons against it.

The greatest weapon of all is the one on your shoulders, the one that has hardly even begun to be tapped for its imaginative firepower and extraordinary ideas; what victories could we win, most of all against the ancient enemy in ourselves, if our imaginations grew as wildly as our heaps of death-machines? This latter question was asked of me once by a friend who had been in a war. It will not surprise you to hear that he was a Navy man.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Periscope image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, navy, marines



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Existing comments

This article shows a lot of flawed thinking about the inevitalbility of war and that participants are brave. These are not conclusions you can reach if you understand the message of Jesus. It is in rejecting the notion that it is beyond humans to change and embracing the view of peace that Jesus suggests is the action for Christians. The deaths of innocent people brought about governemnts and religious organisations cannot be regarded as "the sport we cannot quit". Some deeper reflection on taking appropriate action rather than accepting the current pervasive flawed view of war may lead to some very startling changes in viewpoint. This has happened already with the rejection of the death penalty by the Roman Catholic Church as an appropriate punishment. Not all of our personal conclusions to our experience and reflection are accurate. Being able to refrain from putting them forward as "truths" and /or "wisdom" requires a courage a bit like "holding your tongue" when you are in a meaningful comversation with others not of your faith or culture.

Carmel | 02 July 2014  

As the daughter of a WW2 Veteran, the niece of a Korean War veteran-killed in action- and the little sister of a Vietnam War veteran,I can agree that the most tender hearted men I have met and the most anti-war men I have met are those with actual war experience....not their political leaders.

Anne Ramsay | 05 August 2014  

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