I have been asked to speak with you about becoming a “MOM” – which in my case stands for “Mother of a Marine.”
The Marine in question - First Lt. Samuel Maxwell Hillel Mottel ben David Brenner - had a lifetime free pass to avoid this messy business of training to go to war. This summer, while many of us were at the beach, perhaps complaining that we’d forgotten the sunscreen, Sam was in a Virginia forest wearing a hazmat suit and gas mask and carrying many pounds of equipment and weapons while running through clouds of tear gas, training in ninety-five degree heat how to lead a platoon of 18 and 19 year-old Marines through a chemical weapons attack. Tonight I will travel to Virginia for an early morning ceremony at the Marine base at Quanitco, where he will graduate from the US Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course, one of 68 of the original 114 Marines to complete this grueling training program. After some leave time here in West Roxbury, Sam will report next month to the Camp Pendleton in California, where he will command a platoon in the 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment, the most decorated combat unit in Marine Corps history.
So how exactly did it come to pass that my mild-mannered son, a product of Jewish schools and the Boston Latin tradition, a culture vulture who loves art and architecture, ended up in the Marine Corps?
Eleanor Roosevelt once observed: “The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”
On the home front, early on, Sam’s family was not quite ready to join the Greatest First Lady Ever in thanking God for the Marine Corps.
My brother in law asked: "Did you tell him Jews don't serve in the military?" He was only half serious, but he wasn't entirely joking either. Of course he meant that Jews don't serve in the American military. If they are going to defend a nation, let it be the nation of Israel, but surely not the land of their birth.
My side of the family was no less aghast. My mother, a Mayflower descendent, is deeply proud of the ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. But that was then.
"The MARINES?" she asked. “But if he wants to serve his country, why can’t he do Americorps? Or how about the Coast Guard?"
These were lovely fantasies indeed. Sam, earnest Americorps volunteer, J. Crew shirtsleeves rolled up, bent over the desks of disenfranchised youth in a remote, stifling corner of Mississippi. Or: riding high aboard his Coast Guard cutter, gold buttons on white uniform gleaming, gently coaxing wayward Canadian fisherman back to their own territorial waters.
But no. Sam wanted to be one of The Few. The Proud.
"The Marines were the first on the ground in Haiti, Mom," Sam reminded me after the 2010 earthquake, when I was still trying to adjust to this idea of a son in uniform. Left unmentioned was the fact that the Marines were also first on the ground when we invaded Haiti in 1915, overthrowing a democratically elected government.
Sam's decision was complicated - although less so for him than for everyone else. He was ten years old when the twin towers were hit - unlike my generation, his came of age having experienced the U.S. under attack. His sense of the need to defend the country was based on actual history, not right-wing ideology. He also loved physical challenges and tests of endurance, and male camaraderie, all staples of the Marine Corps experience. He had shown himself to be a leader, as captain of the wrestling team at Latin School and captain of the White Dragons during color wars at his beloved Camp Avoda. He had run political campaigns while in college, and thought he might run for office himself someday. And he thought that people holding national office should serve the countries’ military, if they were to decide whether to launch wars. In the end, one night at dinner, he offered the simplest and truest explanation for his decision to become a Marine Corps officer, to take an oath to “locate and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, to repel the enemy’s assaults by fire and close combat.” He said: "It's a dirty job. Somebody's gotta do it. Why not me?"
I could think of a few reasons why not. Death in combat, for starters. Captivity. Or trauma so deep it causes men and women to take their own lives years after a war has ended. When most of us think about military service, we think about risk to oneself, or one’s child, not duty to one’s country.
One night when Sam was still in college, David and I bumped into the parents of one of Sam's college friends at the intermission of a play. What would Sam be doing that summer, the other mother asked. When I explained that he'd be spending 6 weeks at the Marine Corps base at Quantico Virginia, for training, she replied that her son would be working for a landscaping company, and that her husband had been one of the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Referring to Sam’s service, she said - quote - "That would never happen to us. We're a social justice family."
At a neighborhood seder a short time later, I was seated next to an Israeli mother whose son was returning to Israel to serve in the IDF. Bingo! This time I would make a connection. My son too was serving in the military, I told her, passing the haroset.
The Israeli mother, though, frowned at me and all but asked what was wrong with him. Why did he join the military? And when I suggested that my son's motives might be similar to her own son's, a mandatory draft in Israel notwithstanding, she shook her head.
In Israel it is an honor, but here they do it for the money, she said with great certainty. And when I said no, that while it was true that many Americans joined the military because it promised a paycheck, that was not universally true and certainly not the case with my son.
And that was the end of the conversation.
In hindsight, I think the Israeli mom – whatever her political leaning were, and we did not discuss them – was correct to draw a distinction between military service as a point of national pride in her own country, and the complete absence of that connection for the Americans she knew here in the Boston area.
The social justice mom was assessing military service from a point of privilege: fighting for your country only makes sense if you can answer to the question so often asked during the Vietnam era: “What are we fighting for?”
This is a very tough thing for us to imagine, those of my generation who were raised during Vietnam – that we could serve our country with honor and distinction – and in uniform – even if we cannot entirely resolve our own conflicts about the conflict in question. What if those of us who embrace the values of Tikkun Olam, to heal and repair the world, might also embrace the idea that the branches of our military, like the branches of our elected government, function best when they reflect the people they were intended to serve?
That would mean that we would not be content to see military service as an obligation for other peoples’ children, but as an essential act of citizenship, akin to performing jury duty, or voting.
When you are called to jury duty, the merits of individual cases (what are we trying this for) are beside the point. What matters is your service to keep that system, flawed as it may be, moving along. When it comes to voting, we typically believe that it is our duty as citizens to vote, even if the choice of candidates is not especially to our liking. We remind ourselves of the people around the world and here in our own country who have given their lives for the right to vote, and we treat this right as a duty.
But I think most of us would agree that we would very much rather not see military service as part of our civic obligation as Americans. IF the war is a just war, IF the policy makes sense to us, IF we can be sure, to paraphrase John Kerry that we would not have to be that last man to die for a mistake, then perhaps might we be willing to serve our country. Our concerns about inequality notwithstanding, the volunteer army allows us to avoid having to think too long or hard about these questions.
The result is that we the people are increasingly estranged from our military. American Jews make up 2% of the U.S. population and less than a third of one per cent of those serving in the military, according to the Department of Defense. Massachusetts has 5 military personnel for every ten thousand residents, among the lowest rates of service of any state.
Of course Jewish Americans have always served our countries military with distinction. Let me tell you about one of them, who bear special remembrance. Rabbi Roland Gittelson, the first Jewish chaplain in the US Marine Corps, was rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel in Boston and passed away the very same year that Sam started preschool - at the very same synagogue Gittleson led for so many years. No accidents in God’s universe.
He is remembered for his famous eulogy delivered on behalf of the Marines who had died at Iwo Jima. Anti-semitism was rife in the Marine Corps during Gittlesohn’s time; he had been asked by a Protestant chaplain to lead an interdenominational service to honor the fallen, but other Christian chaplains objected on the premise it would violate church doctrine. So there were three separate memorial services held on that charred ground. And here’s a piece of what the Rabbi said, as he thought ahead to the war’s inevitable end:
“When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward, not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departing comrades: this too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers – will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.”
The United States military could use more Roland Gittlesons.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should take up the cause of a universal draft as our newest crusade. Lower income and less well-educated Americans have always disproportionately served in the military, even in Gittleson’s time. But in my time, I have watched my son remove the armor of his own privilege, and in doing so, become willing to do the “dirty job” that no one expected him to do. My Marine has taught me something that I think is worth contemplating on this holy day of the year, as I review my own conduct and choices.
When have I said no to doing life’s dirty jobs? When have I been content to leave them to others? When have I allowed my own voice to be louder than God’s voice, to think more about what I want to do than to ask: what needs to be done?
Every day brings a fresh opportunity to rationalize my desire to avoid difficult assignments. Or, I can step up, as my son has, choosing to endure discomfort, pain, sacrifice for something greater than himself. It’s a dirty job. Somebody’s got to do it. Why not you? Why not me?