I’m an Aging Armchair Soldier Looking for a Fight

I don’t know why this should make me so upset. I do not want to go to war. I abhor violence and killing and have no overwhelming need to prove my manhood. I like guns, but the only things I shoot are targets or clay pigeons. And yet, I feel like I could cry at any moment. I know I shouldn’t feel this way. After all, the Navy tried to screw me once. No, not some horny sailor, but the whole Navy. It was after my junior year in high school in Port Washington, Long Island, and I had recently registered for the selective service. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t seem to have a choice: There would be no college loans or financial aid without it.

Until that time, my only dreams of foreign conquest had to do with getting into Oxford. At 10 years old, I’d read The Hobbit , and stared for hours at the picture of J.R.R. Tolkien on the back. My course was set: author, professor, Oxford.

Later that summer, exhibiting what psychologists would call “counterphobic behavior”-a desire to put myself deliberately in danger in order to confront and be in control of my deepest fear-I was sitting in a dreary Navy testing center, taking the ASVAB exams.

By that time, any hopes I’d had of going to Oxford for an undergraduate degree were gone. My family was in dire financial straits, and my options were limited. My new plan was to join the ROTC, so I could afford to attend the University of Chicago, and then perhaps become a Rhodes Scholar. As for joining the service, my rationale was that if I could be drafted and forced to fight some war I didn’t believe in anyway, then I might as well have some say in the matter and get a free college education in the process. For weeks I cursed the name of Jimmy Carter, the man responsible for reinstating the draft registration.

A short while later, some Navy officials came calling. They didn’t announce their visit, just pulled up in a plain sedan with government plates. They had impressive uniforms and sat politely at the edge of my mom’s sagging couch. Solemnly, they told me I had gotten the highest ASVAB scores any of them had ever seen, something like the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent. Did this mean I got into the ROTC? I asked. By all means, they assured me, you will be able to go to college. They handed me some documents to sign.

“This is to join the ROTC?” I asked again.

“You’ll be able to go to college,” they nodded, smiling.

My mom had dealt with contracts before; she looked the papers over and realized, with a shock, that they were not enrollment forms for ROTC. I was, in fact, one signature away from a six-year bid on a nuclear submarine. We threw the officers out and, that same day, feeling angry and betrayed, I vowed I would never voluntarily serve in the armed forces.

Even after 9/11, I didn’t feel any urge to buzz my hair and shop for fatigues. Oh, I wanted the bastards caught and killed, and I would gladly throw ticker tape down on the heroes who did the deed, but I wouldn’t be a part of it.

Only now, over the past six months, have my feelings changed. I want to sign up and, if necessary, will fight. My reasons are certainly debatable; already they are the stuff of sundered friendships and strained relationships. Among my loose urban tribe of fellow hipsters, peaceniks, artists and vegetarians, I am seen as a radical, a warmonger, a hopeless right-wing stooge. Again and again, I am implored to sign petitions and attend marches against the war. But to me, what I’m really seeing are the guilt- and shame-driven children of the First World marching in self-loathing lockstep, in an “anti-war” movement that’s little more than a collectivist death cult. It’s the triumph of tribalism, the exaltation of mob rule.

I don’t want to fight for Big Oil. I don’t want to fight for Mom, apple pie or the New York Yankees. I love my country, but I am not motivated by any jingoistic, my-country-right-or-wrong brand of blind patriotism. I refuse to accept what I fervently believe is the root psychological motivation for the anti-war movement: that I deserve to die simply for being American. I am no less dovish than I was as a teenager, nor any less distrustful of the tactics of the armed forces. I simply see the alternative as suicide. I want to fight because it is in my own best interest to see Saddam Hussein dead, and the regimes of Iran and North Korea toppled as quickly as possible after that.

It’s no coincidence that three of the four countries leading the charge against the U.S.-China, Germany and the former Soviet Union-are responsible for the most brutal, murderous and inhumane dictatorships in human history. And I believe with all my heart that their goal is not to prevent a supposed U.S. tyranny, but to weaken us enough that they can finally reinstall their own. Whatever criticisms can be made about our own policies over the years, to engage in the cheap moral relativism that equates Bush with Stalin, or Hitler, or Mao, is simply madness. Those are my reasons for wanting to fight.

I went to the Web site for the Army Reserves and read the requirements for joining: U.S. citizen or registered alien, aged 17-34, of good mental, moral and physical condition.

Mentally, I thought, I’m in fine shape; morally, I’d have to take my chances; and physically-well, there’s always room for improvement. I smoke and have a particular weakness for Bombay Sapphire martinis. I rarely exercise, but I’m 5-foot-10, 180 pound and built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Overall, I’m in pretty good shape for a man of-36? Shit.

I stared at the requirements for a long time, then got the number of a local recruiter. I explained my situation, and the man on the other end of the line only confirmed my fears: I was too old.

“But what about a waiver or extension?” I asked him.

“Do you have any prior service?” he asked. I told him no, and as I thought back to that fateful afternoon on Long Island, I had a surprisingly strong pang of regret. “No,” I said quietly.

“Then I’m very sorry,” he said.

“Isn’t there anything you can do? Is there another division or branch, or some civilian organization I could join?”

“Hold on, please.” I held, my heart racing. Was I crazy? Maybe I was crazy. The man came back on the line.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “The National Guard has the oldest cut-off age, but it’s 35.”

“Thank you,” I said. I hung up.

Many people, including our current and former Presidents, have used political connections to get out of service; right now, I’d use them to get in. If anybody reading this knows of someone they can refer me to, who might be able to help me join the reserves regardless of my age, please contact me. And if I can’t serve my country through the military, then I’ll find some way as a civilian. After all, I never did get that college degree, either, and that didn’t stop me from becoming a writer. Some would even say it helped.