A few years ago me and my mate were talking about conscription and we realized that we’re now too old to go to war. That glory and horror of mankind throughout history has somehow passed us by.
It could be that, as Pinker says, the world is more peaceful now. Or that we lived through a rare, quiet bubble. Or maybe mechanized warfare needs fewer men than before.
Whatever the case, we got off scott free. No one invaded Australia the whole time we were young and living there.
My grandfather fought in Papua New Guinea. My father was conscripted for Vietnam but Australia pulled out of the war before he had to go. The closest I came was during the East Timor crisis – there was talk of reinstating conscription to make up the numbers but the government knew this would be election-losingly unpopular so nothing came of it. Perhaps conscription is now history in developed countries. Generating the sort of economic growth that can fund high-tech defense systems is perhaps more important than teaching sullen bogans how to load a rifle.
I felt relief at this realization, but also . . . something else. I had never owned any desire to fight, and had war come I probably would have been skeptical about its cause and would most likely have tried to dodge the draft by whatever means I could. But on the other hand, perhaps we do not really respect a man who has never been in combat, in that same, instinctive way we question the value of an older woman who never bore child. We might consciously dismiss such primitive feelings, but still, there they are.
Can you really say you have a true friend until you have been in a trench together? Can you call yourself a man, if you have never been tested? Can you appreciate peace if you have never suffered war?
I will never know if I am brave, if I am willing to put my life on the line for another. I will never know if I might lead other men. If I am clever enough to outsmart an enemy. If I could stay calm and do my job when shells were falling around me. I just don’t know.
This thought is about 5% disheartening and 95% welcome, because I strongly suspect that the answer to those unanswered questions is ‘no’. Bad enough to suffer the horror of war – how much worse to face it, and also to disgrace yourself once there! To cower in a bunker, to tremble, to hesitate, to weep. To wet yourself. And yet, all of these outcomes would be much more tolerable than to die, to be mutilated, or to be captured and tortured.
I thank whatever gods kept me and my friends from war. But who knows? Things could go off here at any moment, and I would face the entirely different experience of trying to survive conflict as a civilian. Apparently in modern war the safest place to be is in the military.
For that matter, I’ve never been in a real fight, either. But that’s another story, and probably not one worth writing a post about.