Politics & Policy

“Dad, What Did You Do in the War?”

Why I joined.

I woke up early one morning in the fall of my 36th year and traveled to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to take an Army physical. I felt faintly ridiculous, standing there in my briefs next to a bunch of high-school guys who looked like they just left a casting call for Friday Night Lights. They called me “sir” and talked about combat and death while I duck-walked past a stern-eyed doctor, took a drug test with absolutely no privacy, and strained to read the last line of the eye chart. Against all odds, my middle-aged body passed the tests, and a few months later I found myself standing under a blazing hot sun while a drill instructor mocked my inability to execute a simple “about face.”

Why would a 36-year-old lawyer with a beautiful wife and two young kids decide to join the United States Army Reserve? It’s no surprise that the answer starts with 9/11, but it doesn’t end there. Like millions of Americans, I can remember sitting in the safety of my office — watching in disbelief as the towers fell — and thinking, I wish I could do something. But I didn’t join then.

Less than two years later, I had similar thoughts. My wife and I were returning from a steak dinner at Morton’s as we listened to radio accounts of a fierce battle against the Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad. I was struck by the strangeness of the moment: I had just finished a delicious filet while my fellow citizens were fighting for their lives against the shock troops of a genocidal regime. Again, I thought, I wish I could do something. But I didn’t join then, either.

As the war dragged on, I thought less about what I could do and worried more about national issues. By 2005 (and the fourth anniversary of 9/11), my family and I were in Philadelphia, I was president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and I was living in the world of ideas. My days were full of media calls, speeches, panel discussions, and fundraising presentations.

Everywhere I went (especially on campus), the war in Iraq was the hot topic. Casualties mounted and our unity faded into a quaint memory of 9/11 telethons and Congressional singalongs. Whenever someone asked me my opinion, I always said the same thing: “This is a test of our national character. Do we have the courage to engage in a long war against an enemy that seeks not just to kill us but to undermine our will to fight?”

And then last summer I read about the Army’s recruiting shortfalls and thought to myself, we’re failing the test. But as soon as those words crossed my mind, I felt convicted. We are not failing the test. I am failing the test. National will is a reflection of millions of individual choices, and the choice I had made to this point was to simply stand aside and lament others’ decisions. But that was no longer enough. And so then, finally, I joined.

My life changed. I resigned from FIRE — where it was hardly fair to a small and vital organization to have its president subject to lengthy overseas deployment — and joined the Alliance Defense Fund — which is remarkably supportive of employees called to serve. In late May, I left for a month of training at Fort Lee to begin my Army Reserve career.

As a soldier, I have a long way to go. While I passed the Army Physical Fitness Test with flying colors (well, an above-average score), the highlights of my young Army career include an embarrassing fall from one of the obstacles in the so-called “confidence course,” a low crawl through a patch of poison ivy that led to a quick trip to an urgent care clinic, and a truly terrible performance on the M16 qualifying range. But I am improving — or at least I improved enough for the Army to send me on to my home unit for further training.

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I am spending my spare time completing the second (written) phase of my officer basic course as rumors circulate that my unit may be mobilized next fall. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know two things. First, there is no feeling in the world that compares to the first time you salute the flag when wearing the uniform of your country.

And second, I now know the answer to a question I think my children may ask one day: “Dad, what did you do in the war?” I don’t know that I’ll have any tales worth telling, and I certainly know that my own service will be a pale shadow compared to the tremendous courage shown by so many, but I can say one thing.

I volunteered to serve.

 – David French is a First Lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve, a senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, and a contributor to NRO’s “Phi Beta Cons” blog.

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