Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father’s Day

            Celebrating either Father’s Day and Mother’s Day can be unsettling.  We know about flawed but still unspeakably wonderful parents.  But we are also uncomfortably aware of parents who range from ineffective to downright demonic.  And we don’t get to choose our parents—we get who we get.
            My own father—Pat Milligan—is gone.  I wish I could talk with him today.  My brother and I believe that he was an abused child, who suffered greatly.  But he overcame much of it, and was a devoted and responsible father—even though, like most of his generation, he was never verbally demonstrative.
            I was asked once, in mid-life, how I got along with my father.  I was (as sometimes happens) surprised at what came out of my mouth:  “Oh, my father and I are friends.  We get along fine.  My father from childhood is still my enemy, and I haven’t forgiven him.”  I’m glad to say that now I have—perhaps because now I know more about the limits of my own ability to protect my own children from the wounds of my upbringing.
            My father was, essentially, an only child.  He knew nothing about being a sibling.  He had four kids, and reared them successfully.
            To the best of my knowledge, my father was the first one in his family’s history to get a degree.  His four children have ten degrees among them.  That’s an enormous achievement on his part.  He reared us in a home in which we were surrounded by books and magazines, and he read “Time” magazine religiously.  He was in church every Sunday, and accepted posts of leadership in the church.  He paid his bills, never smoked or drank, and to my knowledge was never unfaithful to his wife.  That’s a lot to say about a father.
            So he was flawed.  But I could have done far worse in the luck of the draw.
            But on Father’s Day, when we’re celebrating fathers, I don’t hear enough celebration of the privileges of being a father.
            And the terror.
            I’m a father times five—three genetic offspring, and two step-kids, who have most generously and marvelously adopted me as an additional father (and I wouldn’t take anything for the privilege!)  I didn’t have much of a hand in rearing them, but I was smart enough to marry their mother, and they have open-heartedly let me into their family. 
            Not every man gets to be a father.  But we who do learn things—and find joys—that we could never experience in any other way.
            During President Kennedy’s time in office he and Jackie lost a baby to “hyaline membrane disease.”  (I was blessedly unaware later, when our third child was born with “respiratory distress syndrome,” that that was essentially the same thing.  We did not lose her!)  But my memory is that at the press conference after the baby died, the President said (apparently paraphrasing Francis Bacon), “Having children is giving hostages to fate.”
            The chilling reality of that quote has struck me many times through the years.  Becoming a parent means putting out there into the world people who are part of our very selves—flesh of our flesh, bone of our bones—and we are finally powerless, no matter how hard we try, to protect them from the dangers of the world.  (And, sometimes, even from ourselves.)  What happens to them happens to us, and nothing can stop that. 
            But oh, the joys of being a proud parent—about which so many volumes have been written.  All three of my children finished college degrees—one of them with high honors.  Three of my five children are parents—and I’ve told them both that they are better parents than I was.  How gratifying is that!  And all seven of their children are people I’m proud to know, and to claim as kin.
            It’s often been said that children don’t come with a manual, and we don’t have to have a license (so far!) to become a parent.  We have less formal training for parenthood than we do for driving a car.  It’s a gigantic undertaking, and nobody gets it completely right.  It’s always a dizzying blend of euphoria and worry, pride and terror, fun and guilt. 
            In “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Oscar Wilde said, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”  Every parent needs forgiveness from their children—for the things we did wrong, for the things we failed to do, for the things we failed to understand, for the times when we put ourselves ahead of our sacred duties as parents.  The lucky ones among us get that forgiveness. 
            SO!  On this Father’s Day, I want to say a huge thanks to all five of my kids, for the joys and the privileges of being their father.  I want to ask them once more for forgiveness for my shortcomings.  And I want to tell them how proud I am of every one of them.  Without them I would never have known the rich joys of fatherhood.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The dogs of war

A cherished old friend recently sent me the following e-mail:

“US Navy Carrier ... no wonder the Iranians want this vessel out of the Persian Gulf. This is a great example of technology, teamwork and strength in action. This is impressive... Go for the ride! Just click HERE

If you don’t want to watch the video right now, it’s enough to know that it’s a ten-minute Discovery Channel video showing an American aircraft carrier in action.  It’s a very impressive display of hardware and skill.  And as the captain says during the video, that one aircraft carrier has a larger and more powerful air force than 70% of the countries in the world.

It brought back memories.  For three years I lived within a few hundred yards of what was then Lakehurst Naval Air Station, in New Jersey—also, incidentally, the site of the famed von Hindenberg disaster, in 1937 (?).  One of the benefits of having the NAS nearby was that we merited a yearly visit from the famed Navy stunt-flying team, the Blue Angels.  They put on a performance every year that was breathtaking, and I always looked forward to it.

It was not just grandstanding.  Having such powerful machines moving at such speeds, so close together and so close to the ground, posed real risks, and once in a while one of the pilots died—in what was clearly a noncombat situation.  So the Navy had obviously calculated that the risks involved were justified by the positive visibility they gave to the U. S. Navy before the civilian population—and, I assume, the base personnel as well.

But as I watched with awe and admiration the beauty of these huge and powerful warplanes, I couldn’t help being aware that this display was not why they were designed, built, and purchased.  These were warplanes—designed both to kill and destroy, and also to make clear to the world that they were ready and able to kill and destroy.  And I wondered, over and over, at the irony that some of the most beautiful machines built in the history of the world were built for purpose of killing and destruction.  Missiles, drones, helicopters . . . there is a great deal of military hardware that carries the same paradox—esthetically beautiful, but designed primarily to be deadly to human life and property. 

What I thought many times, as I watched the Blue Angels perform, was that I would have liked to have seen an additional show, after the first one.  I wished just one of the Blue Angels, fully armed, could designate a nearby hillside as its target, and allow us to see what a single plane and a single pilot could do to a small town or village.  I imagine that it would have been terrifying—not the sort of impression the Navy might want to leave with the civilian population, though perhaps far more accurate as a representation of what those planes were.

Americans are incredibly good at building and operating gadgets, especially big military gadgets—among the best in the world.  It’s a skill in which we can justifiably take pride, and that ability has had a significant impact on the history of the world.

The aircraft carrier, astonishing as it is, is just one facet of American military power, and we civilians never even quite know all the dimensions of the power that has been built and is being operated in our name.

But it’s also quite clear that we tend to be far better at designing and building the gadgets than we are at dealing with the ethical dilemmas posed by having them.  The possession of power always, always, always, changes things.  And the decisions regarding whether to do the things we are capable of doing is, for all of us, full of pitfalls and temptations. 

If we are unhappy with a small country (or even a larger one) somewhere, and we know that one of the solutions is simply to bomb it into submission, that inevitably raises the question of whether that is the wisest solution to the problem.  And the decision never rests (and should not) with the American citizenry.  It rests with our leaders, military and civilian, who bring their particular information, wisdom, and ethics to the table.

My point is a simple one:  having this much power at our disposal means, almost inevitably, that at some points it will be used in ways that are less than wise.  There will be times when wiser voices would point to the actual (and lasting) costs of using military power as the solution to the problem, and to the wisdom of working harder to find other solutions before resorting to that one.  Those voices are not always listened to.

So when we’re confronted with a video hymn of praise for American military technology, or a bumper sticker appealing to me to “Support our troops”—it’s appropriate to remain aware of the dangers posed to us by our very possession of this much power.  And it’s appropriate always to “support our troops” by doing all we can to ensure that they are never “sent into harm’s way” unless it’s as clear as possible that no less destructive an option can be acceptable.

The availability of a military solution to international attention must never cause us to forget the price—to us—of using that power.  We must always be cautious, careful, and when we unleash the dogs of war, do so with foreboding and regret, not just punitive rage.  To do less means that we have forgotten what war really is.