A life with purpose

I was going to write a fairly ordinary descriptive post about my evening attending a reception aboard the Bonhomme Richard.  (Which, by the way, was another splendid opportunity made available to me courtesy of my membership in the Navy League.)  However, the more I thought about the evening — and I promise I will describe it — the more I wanted to write about the larger implications of my recent contacts with the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marines.  (I haven’t yet met the Air Force, so to speak.)

You have to understand as you read this that, while I’ve always managed to admire the military (and I say “managed” because that’s not easy as a liberal), I had never actually met people in the modern American military.  I’d met plenty of people in the Israeli military because a visit to Israel, especially to visit old family friends, automatically means meeting people your own age who serve in the military.  Likewise, through my parents’ generation, I’d met people who had served during World War II, both in the American and the British military.

It was this WWII generation, in fact, that shaped my views about military service, and enabled me to respect our troops despite my political outlook.  My father served in the RAF and ANZAC during World War II, and both he and my mother were in the Israeli Army during the 1947/1948 War of Independence.

Although my father fought in absolutely horrific battles (at El Alamein and Crete, among other places), he really enjoyed being in the military.  For him, fresh out of the chaos of (a) Weimar Germany, (b) Nazi Germany, (c) a nascent Kibbutz (endless work, little food, lots of danger), and (d) starving on the streets of Tel Aviv, the RAF and ANZAC were havens of order and security.  In addition to the structure he so needed and craved, my father’s life, at last, had a purpose:  beat the Nazis.  Even when he was working the most boring, demeaning or dangerous jobs, he was still making a difference for a cause in which he deeply believed.

My mother too remembers her service days with great pleasure.  Although she was (as she says) “just a lowly draftsman,” she knew that her work matter greatly.  She may just have been sitting at a drafting board in an office, but the maps she created would be used by the Israeli Army to aid in creating their battle strategies.  The accuracy of her work could spell difference between victory and defeat.  My mother also remembers with fondness the camaraderie of service.  She and her colleagues were all part of a greater enterprise, and they felt a very tight bond as a result.  (She felt the same bond in concentration camp, despite the horrors, when she and her fellow inmates bent their efforts to beating the Japanese simply by the act of surviving.)

Those stories formed the tapestry of my childhood, but they stood in stark contrast to the emotional malaise of the Vietnam War.  While the stories at home were about honor and loyalty and purpose, the stories in the media were about despair and anger and substance abuse and a tremendous sense of waste.  The conscripted Army of my childhood was not a happy one — or, at least, the media relayed endless stories of unhappiness, regardless of whether that attitude was universally felt or not.  I knew the mantra:  War is evil, the military is an evil machine, soldiers are victims of the vast industrial complex.

Except that’s so not true.

In the last two or three years, I’ve spoken with a young Marine about to head off to Afghanistan; spent an enjoyable lunch with an Army recruiter who served a tour of duty in Iraq; got the benefit of a fascinating hour and a half with the XO on a destroyer; crawled in and out of Marine landing craft under the tutelage of Marines anxious to explain all the wonders of the vehicle; been shown more weapons than you can imagine (to my son’s great joy) by sailors or Marines who were just delighted to tell about their “toys”; spent a lovely day on the bridge of a Coast Guard ship; and had a Captain take the time to walk me and my family all over his wonderful Amphibious Assault Ship.

A common thread tied together each of my encounters with our military:  The people to whom I spoke (and who spoke to me) were completely delighted with their jobs.  They found their equipment fascinating, they were proud of their responsibilities, and they enjoyed being part of the series of groups that comprised their lives:  their team, their ship or unit, their military branch (Marines, Army, etc.), and their Country.  Over and over and over, I heard from them their sense that each of these layers gave them a benefit, and that they in turn owed honor and duty to both the small and large entities wrapped around them.

In other words, the people to whom I’ve spoken over the past few years have a sense of purpose in their lives.  Because they believe in the organization for which they work (whether their team, their ship, their branch of the forces or their country), that belief imbues their tasks with meaning.  If you’re a Marine, you’re not just engaged in the boring work of taking apart and cleaning a weapon, you are responsible for making sure that the weapon is totally operational for your team and your country.  There’s almost a sanctity that descends on each task because each task serves a purpose greater than the task itself or the individual doing that task.

How different this is from my years as a young lawyer working in a big firm.  My work was indescribably boring, and there was nothing to leaven that boredom.

The money my work generated went into the hands of people I didn’t particularly admire (although I liked many), and they spent it on the pursuits of Yuppies:  big houses, fancy cars, boast-worthy trips.  Nor did the clients for whom I worked engender any excitement.  They were neither good nor bad.  They were just businesses that had locked heads with other businesses, with each jockeying for position in our legal system.  It was the rare case that left me believing that I was fighting for truth, justice and the American way — as opposed to spending umpteen hours reviewing documents simply so Company A could get that gosh-darned contract interpreted to its benefit, not to Company B’s benefit.

My life was so meaningless that, eventually, I couldn’t get up in the  morning.  It was only when I went into business for myself that I found a cause I could believe in:  making enough money to pay my rent.  It wasn’t high-minded, certainly, but it stoked my professional engines.

All of which brings me back to the reception I attended last night.  From the moment I turned off the street and into the parking lot, I was taken care of by remarkably attractive young people who did their job with good cheer — and treated me with so much respect it made me feel very old.  One after the other, each person carried out his or her task with diligence, whether it was waiving me on to the gate, checking my name off the list, guiding a bomb sniffing dog around my car (that was a first for me), or shepherding me through the security scanner.  I’ve always been impressed by the cheerful efficiency of Disneyland.  The Navy and Marines are better.

When I boarded the ship itself, I was quite flattered that Captain Parrott remembered me — considering how many thousands of people he sees during Fleet Week, that was a testament to his memory and his manners.  A brief conversation with him later established him as a convivial and effective host.

The room was filled with people.  About half were in uniform.  They all looked so nice and neat — and happy to be there.  The other half were in ordinary dress (civvies?).  Once my contact from the Navy League (you know him as SJBill) took me under his wing and starting introducing me around, I discovered that many of these men and women were retired Admirals, retired Captains, retired pilots, retired navigators, people from the Defense Industry, and City managers.  The only disappointment for me was that there were so many people to meet that I didn’t get a chance to hear about their careers in more detail.

Such conversation as I heard, whether because I was part of the conversation or just listening in, again convinced me that the military is a good employer — and it’s not just the benefits and the college scholarships.  Retired people reminisced fondly about their past service; active duty people spoke enthusiastically about their responsibilities.  There was none of the whining that characterizes any good gathering of lawyers, all of whom feel that much of what they do is wasting time.  Indeed, since I enjoy a good whine, I almost felt out of place.  But the food was good, the music was fabulous (great band, great vocalist), and I was having a wonderful time, so I was able to enjoy the bonhomie on the Bonhomme Richard.

When I left, I have to admit to a feeling of envy.  I’ve always chosen the safe, risk-free paths in my life.  I’ve done pretty well, too:  good jobs, good family, good community, etc.  But I’ve missed that sense of purpose that makes life more than just creature comforts and material acquisition.  My life revolves around me and those directly dependent on me, but it doesn’t have any greater sense of meaning.  For the people in our American military, and this is true even if they leave after a short stint, they will have spent part of their lives working for something greater than themselves, and I envy them that fact.