There’s been a lot of young death around me lately (although none of it has involved people near and dear to me). Some deaths have made the news, such as the teen boy killed because he was in the car with a drunk driver, or the teen girl who got drunk and fell off a cliff, or the two young suicides at a single high school. Some deaths haven’t made the news, but have been devastating stories making their way through the parent pipeline about cancer or unknown heart ailments leaving a family grieving and bereft.
When I hear these stories, all of which invariably strike too close to home if one is a parent, I console myself with the thought that, in the pre-modern era, 50% of all children died before their 5th birthday. In other words, these stories are so devastating, in part, because they are so rare. When you have high child mortality, you don’t sit and count on the fingers of one hand the number who have died. Counting the dead is the luxury of a world with a low mortality rate.
One of the things that is so shattering about young deaths is the abrupt end of potential. These are stories that are finished before they’re even really written. Aside from loving and being loved, two things that are enormously important, these children haven’t made a mark. The gifts locked away in each person, in them, died a’bornin’
There really is a point to this maudlin essay, and I’m about to get to it, right now:
My young son has always been military mad. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s “going to go to West Point to become a Marine [sic].” I joke that, when he turns 16, he’ll become a vegetarian peace activist whose closest contact with West Point will be to picket outside its front gates. The fact is, though, that there is a reasonable chance that he will make the military his career.
This fact caused my sister, who is still pretty much a hippie, to ask, “Will you mind if he goes into the military? He might get killed.”
She is entirely correct. In the military, he might get killed. While his chances of getting killed in today’s military are less than they would have been if he’d been in the Civil War, World II, WWI or Revolutionary military, they’re definitely there. But as I tried to demonstrate, young people still have a chance of getting killed, whether or not they’re in the military. Even our controlled, sanitized world hasn’t been able to erase entirely the risk of death for young people.
But here’s the big question: Does the context of ones death matter? Ideally, all of us will live to a happy old age, and die peacefully in our sleep. But we know that won’t happen. Six million Jews died too young during WWII. Did it matter that some died in the gas chambers, while some died bombing German tanks in the Warsaw Ghetto? Both types of death were horrible and premature. Still . . . some Jews died like cows in an abattoir, and some died as warriors. But dead is dead.
I know a young man who was a waste of space, and is now a very happy Special Forces sergeant. I also know a young man, roughly the same age, who was enormously talented, but who got sucked into the computer gaming world, which acted on his brain like meth. If both were to die tomorrow, one from an IED and one from a heart attack in front of the computer screen, would there be a difference? After all, dead is dead. But one lived life and made a difference and the other, well, the other had really good thumb coordination.
I don’t have any conclusion to reach in this post. Instead, I’m asking you for your opinions, in part because I’m simply curious, and in part because there is a chance that my boy will choose the military, and I need to have a philosophy for that. (By the way, you all know that I wholeheartedly support the military and its mission. I am not looking for a political philosophy about the military. I’m looking for a mother’s philosophy about her son.)
UPDATE: Not quite on point, but this video, which touches upon service to our nation as part of a challenge to an execrable Democrat Party candidate, seems to fit in here rather nicely: