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The Yawning Cultural Gap Between Military and Non-Military Families



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My oldest daughter, the reigning president of Zion Christian Academy’s sixth grade, ran for president of her seventh-grade class the week that Osama bin Laden was killed.

Like any skilled leader, she adapted her message and quickly made a sign that incorporated the very big news of the week into her campaign slogan.

“You elected me president last year, and Osama bin Laden died. What will happen if you elect me again?”

She won the election and proudly represents her class on the student council, where she determines such things as whether to have “hippie day” or “superhero day” during Homecoming Spirit Week.

But I heard around town that some parents — one mother in particular — did not like her campaign-poster joke because she believed it celebrated death. In fact, there was so much handwringing over Osama’s death that many Christians — when discussing it — fell over themselves to make the point that we were happy — but not too happy — about the completion of this military objective.

The Sunday after Osama’s demise, in fact, my husband David and I went to church in Franklin, Tenn. — a wonderfully conservative area in a red, southern state. But even there, we were reprimanded by the worship leader. He said, “Some of you were thrilled to hear the news that Osama bin Laden was killed. But I’m here to tell you that,” his voice lowering with emotion, “we should grieve that this man didn’t get to know the will of God.”

My husband David is in the U.S. Army Reserves, served in Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment during the surge, and earned the Bronze Star. He leaned over and whispered, “Oh, he definitely experienced the will of God.”

It was as if Christians didn’t know how to process the long-awaited military victory because they were so uncertain of the basic theology and experience of war. They generally believe that American soldiers are competent and highly skilled — they admire their bravery, of course — but they couldn’t savor the moment. It was a victory, but it wasn’t their victory.

The Pew Research Center’s recent study confirms this suspicion:

When it comes to their armed forces, most Americans in the post-9/11 era have feelings of pride, gratitude and confidence. At the same time, most Americans acknowledge they know little about the realities of military service. And, in increasing numbers, they disapprove of or do not pay attention to the wars the military is currently fighting.

Fully nine-in-ten Americans say they have felt proud of the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq since those two wars began. But a large majority (71%) of this same public says most Americans have little or no understanding of the problems faced by those in the military.

Several weeks after Osama’s death, I ran into a mother who had disapproved of my daughter’s campaign poster. Believing that she had an arguable point — that perhaps this sentiment shouldn’t be expressed glibly on a campaign poster in a Christian school — I walked over to her and her family and asked if she’d like to discuss the issue personally. I began by explaining that my husband had spent an entire year in Iraq, and that as part of his duties, he not only saw the horror of al Qaeda atrocities but also saw many of these terrorists up close. So, when the leader of al Qaeda was killed — a man responsible for the murder of many of David’s friends — our family took this issue a little more personally than others.

She, however, must have already known about my husband’s military service, because as I began to explain this to her, she interrupted me.

“Yes, I know your husband spent a year in Iraq,” she said, smiling.  “And you’re welcome.”

I must have looked confused. 

“Well, our taxes did pay his salary while he was there, didn’t they?”  she asked.  “That’s how these things work.”

I could’ve dressed head to toe in American flags, lifted my middle finger to liberals, and screamed “F— you anti-capitalists” in the middle of the Wall Street protests and not gotten a response like that. I was thunderstruck.

Her husband looked kindly at me and added, “It’s just that there’s a dinner table somewhere in the Middle East that doesn’t have the father present. Osama bin Laden had a family, you know.”

As I stood there processing this bewildering conversation — it got worse — I really felt this enormous gap between military families and nonmilitary families. Should I stand there in Subway trying to explain to them how bin Laden was the leader of the jihadist organization responsible for the September 11 attacks?  That he was responsible for massive attacks against civilian and military targets? That there are families in our own country — families we have come to know and love — who will sit down with empty seats at their tables for the rest of their lives because of Osama bin Laden?

I couldn’t. “Well, let me be the first to congratulate you for not breaking the law by paying your taxes,” was all I managed to say, my frustration very apparent. “And for your patriotic contribution to the war effort.”

And with that sarcastic remark, I didn’t “agree to disagree,” but simply determined that the gap was just too wide to try to cross. At least on that day.

One weekend afterward, David’s roommate in Iraq came to visit us with his lovely family. Leo calls himself a Mexican-American Mormon agnostic — oh, and he is a big Obama supporter.  (His liberalism must run in his family, because his brother, who lives in Wisconsin, was recently ticketed after he drove by Governor Walker’s house “day after day, week after week, blowing his car horn, sticking his middle finger out of his sunroof and shouting ‘Recall Walker.’”)

In other words, our families might not naturally have a great deal in common, but we’re bound together in a way that will always transcend politics. I told Leo’s wife Sandra about that weird “you’re welcome” comment, and she just rolled her eyes. She’d been a part of military culture for much longer than I had, so she took it in stride. She understood.

Which — in a culture where only about one half of one percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty during the past decade of sustained warfare — was enough.



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