Growing up I watched the young men from our neighborhood go off to war. I actually envied them as they walked down the aisle in church at Sunday mass in their starched uniforms, their bearing proud, serving their country with honor and courage. It never occurred to me that inside those uniforms were young men who had to go to strange places like Korea and Viet Nam to face other young men bent on killing them. They basked in the admiring glances of young girls and old men who had fought in earlier wars, never knowing if they would ever walk down that church aisle again. They must have been frightened, but they did their duty. When I was growing up, very few challenged the idea of not serving one's country if called; not doing so would mark them as cowards in the street culture that saw war as heroic.
I remember a photo from my mother's album of black and white pictures. It showed my handsome godfather, Rocco Crachi, in his combat uniform, sitting atop an army motorcycle on some battlefield in Europe during World War II. Rocco was my father's best friend, and because he was overseas when I was baptized, his brother Gaspar stood in for him as a proxy at the ceremony. My cousin Frank did a hitch in the army that took him to Grassano in southern Italy, the ancestral town of our family. The only other member of our family circle I can remember actively serving in the military was my cousin Peter Caruso, who served in the navy. Pete lived in the apartment above us and I believe was aboard a destroyer in the East China Sea. Thankfully, all came home unscathed, at least physically.
I served 8 years in the army reserve, and the most exotic place I visited was San Antonio, Texas. The only real danger I faced was making it out of the border town bars in Mexico in one piece. I served after Korea and before Viet Nam, so I don't know what it feels like to come under enemy fire. I can only imagine how terrifying it must be to have bombs exploding around you and bullets whizzing over your head. Lately, the word hero has been devalued somewhat in my opinion, but soldiers in wartime who face the possibility of death every day still qualify as heroes under the old definition of the term. Ordinary men display extraordinary courage in the most dangerous circumstances, and their deeds are set down by all who witnessed them. Not surprisingly, these heroes who do make it back are reluctant to speak of their experiences.
World War I was called the war to end all wars. Sadly, that was a wildly optimistic sentiment. What is really different for all the wars we've fought before and since? Germany, Japan and Korea, once our bitter enemies, are now our trading partners. China, Viet Nam and Russia are now popular American tourist destinations. I'm tired of wars. I'm tired of seeing pictures of mothers and children putting small American flags at their husbands' and fathers' graves. All the billions we spend to wage wars could be better spent to alleviate the hunger and suffering in the world, and yet we persist in trying to kill each other in the name of religion, territorial imperatives and ideological differences. I can only pray that my grandchildren will live in a better world and will hear of war only in history books.
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