Watching Your Child Go Off To War
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Like every parent who's watched a son or daughter fly off to Iraq or Afghanistan, David Freed worries that the next car that pulls up outside his house will carry a casualty notification team. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, he wrote of his disdain for those in Washington, D.C. who for the most part send other people's kids off to fight and die. We want to hear from parents whose children are on active duty. What should the president and Congress consider before they send your children off to war?
Just a reminder: We're not going to go be able to take any new calls on the program today. David Freed is a novelist and former reporter who covered the first Gulf war for the Los Angeles Times. He joins us now by phone from his office in Santa Barbara. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
DAVID FREED: Thank you, Neal. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Have you heard from your son? How is he doing?
FREED: I got an email from him when he arrived in country. He said he was fine. He was excited, a little jetlagged, and asked me to wish him good hunting.
CONAN: Well, we wish him the best of luck. And in the meantime, the first thing a lot of people will say is your son is clearly an adult and made his own decision.
FREED: Well, there's no denying that, and I respect him for that and what he's doing, I think, is very honorable. And, you know, I would be lying if I said I didn't try to dissuade him from this path, but this is what he has long wanted to do. And as I said, I respect him for that. My problem is that I think I feel that that my family and the families of those who do send people off to these far-flung places are very much a minority. And in that regard, I think, we're largely sort of ignored by - increasingly by the media.
And I don't think there's really any fully - there's no full comprehension, I think, on the part of the leaders who send these kids off into harm's way on what the, you know, what the weight of that responsibility is, not only for the people that do go off but for the people that they leave behind. It's pretty weighty.
CONAN: You argue that in fact - I think it's one in five members of Congress are veterans, that the last two presidents to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not serve in the military and in fact the - you say that just 1 percent of the Congress has sent their children off to war.
FREED: Right. I don't think that there's a correlation between being a strong war president and necessarily in having served directly in the military. I want to make that point. But I do think there is something to be said for a shared responsibility when it comes to something as grave and significant as the prosecution of a war. You know, in the past, when we've had wars, the responsibility has been shouldered fairly uniformly. You can argue about the unfairnesses inherent in a draft, but the reality is - has been that with everyone ostensibly in the country having skin in the game, the wars that we have been engaged in the past have not been as protracted certainly as the - as our involvement in, say, Afghanistan.
And in Vietnam, of course, there was a huge groundswell ultimately amongst people that it served and amongst the people that were family members and ultimately amongst the leadership that that did see their own kin go off to war, that this ultimately had to end. And in - today I think the reality is that we live in a country where 1 percent of the nation is in uniform, and the other 99 percent of Americans decreasingly have any interest in what's going on overseas. Somebody much more intelligent than I put it, I thought, very eloquently when he said that, you know, the military is at war, and the nation is at the mall.
CONAN: So you're talking about shared sacrifice, that it's been unfairly placed on those who volunteer to be in uniform?
FREED: I don't know if - I'm reluctantly to use the term unfairly because this is an all-volunteer force, and the people that have signed for service, in theory, knew what they were getting in to. I think, for me, the problem is that the - you look at the recurrence of repeated tours and deployments, where you have soldiers and Marines and airmen coming back to the United States and going - being sent over to Afghanistan or previously in Iraq time after time after time.. And the reality is that there's just not enough of them out there. And so what, I guess, what I'm saying is that if there are - if this was an activity that was born more universally, that I think the realities, the sacrifices would be much more apparent to not only the nation as a whole, but also the leadership, and I would like to believe that we would not be 10 years down the road still on a place like Afghanistan.
CONAN: You specifically, though, in your op-ed singled out some of the tough-talking politicians who do not have any children of their own in uniform and did not serve themselves.
FREED: That's true. You know, and I don't want to be partisan here because I think there's plenty of blame on both sides of the political spectrum, but, you know, it rankles me no end when I see Mitt Romney, for example, standing up and talking about our need to expand military spending, and how we need to do this, and we need to do that. He's never been in the military, his five sons have never been in the military. And, you know, I'm not disparaging either Mitt Romney nor his sons, but I do think that, again, there's a certain privilege that comes with being able to say we, and I'm not sure that at the end of the day, given their life's experiences, that they're entitled to use that term, especially when it comes to, you know, having - being in the military and putting yourself in harm's way. It's just - I think there are perhaps - maybe there is an unfairness in that.
CONAN: We want to hear from parents who have children in active service. What do you think politicians ought to consider before they send your children off to war? We'll start with John, and John is with us from Whitmore Lake in Michigan.
FREED: Hi. You're on the air, John.
JOHN: Hi. It's an interesting discussion you're having, and I just felt the need to call. And my son was killed in Afghanistan a little less than a year ago. And I - as I was telling your screener, I - all I can say is that it sent my family and I in a journey that I couldn't describe or make anybody else understand, but I think it gives you a whole different point of view, to be sure. And I don't know if the people that make decisions could ever come to that feeling, but it might help create a balance if they did.
CONAN: I'm so sorry for your loss, John, and I know. I can hear the pain in your voice, and I'm - I wonder, what do you think - there are exceptions as, in fact, was pointed out in the op-ed by David Freed, that senator - Vice President Biden's son served in Iraq, Senator McCain's son served as a Marine in Iraq, but that's not common. There are a lot of veterans in Congress, but not so many have sent their children off to war. What do you think they ought to consider? To whom should they speak before they make these decisions?
JOHN: I think people that have lost family members and maybe people that have - maybe more people that have been directly involved in these conflicts need to have more of a voice. You know, why are they not doing that? They're being put in a position where they can accomplish the task that's being put forward to them, whether or not it's something that they - what are they? Are they policemen? Are they conquerors? Are they peacemakers? Just...
CONAN: You don't think they consider that?
JOHN: I don't know that they do. I don't know that they - I can't say that I know that they do, but I can tell you that my outlook on things somewhat, it was a year ago, it's much different. And I think there's lives being lost in all sides here, and I can tell you that losing your son is as bad as I can imagine.
CONAN: I can understand that. And I'm sure you hope David Freed does not have to go through what you did, but, John, thank you very much for the call.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: And, David, I know that had to send chills down your spine.
FREED: Well, it's, you know, it's difficult for me to find the words. I think that what John has experienced is something that I lay awake at night being terrified by the prospect of that. And the fear that I have and the, you know, the trauma that he's endured, I think - and his family has - I think, largely been compounded by what I think is, in large measure, a disinterest, if you will, on the part of the public. I mean, the economy, of course, is at the fore, and that's the issue that everybody is discussing, you know, our involvement overseas and the global war on terror or whatever it's being called this week is - has really become sort of a secondary consideration for virtually everyone except those people that are there directly, the proverbial boots on the ground and the people that are waiting for them and praying that they return home in one piece.
And, you know, there are studies that have been shown that demonstrate that when the network news, for example, what - when the networks put on stories about our activities, our combat forces overseas, people turn the TV off. They don't want to be reminded of these things, and yet even as they don't want to be reminded, there are people that are out there that are sacrificing and, in some cases, are losing their lives and being wounded. And, you know, it's as if it's just sort of a distant echo from thousands of miles away that the majority of the country seems not to be very much interested in anymore.
CONAN: There's a link to David Freed's op-ed at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get Celeste on the line, Celeste with us from Philly.
CELESTE: My son was killed in April of 2004. He was in the National Guard, and I think this discussion is really important because I think I agree totally that people have totally stopped listening to the casualties of the war, the wars. And I never stopped thinking about the fact that probably some time this week, there's going to be a casualty officer who shows up on somebody's doorstep and that will end life as they know it for the family that hears that news. But that has little to do with real-life politics, and I'm fearful as the politicians, you know, sort of talk about the next war and, of course, unwilling to risk their own blood or their grandchildren and assume that there'll always be good and brave people willing to step up and take the fall for their misadventures.
And I feel a great deal of sadness for the people who have just lost their loved ones and for the horrible journey that they're on and to tell you that it's just - it really doesn't get better. It just changes, but your heart stays broken, and no one can ever tell me that the war in Iraq was justified.
CONAN: Celeste, again, we're sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for the call.
CELESTE: Thank you.
CONAN: David Freed, you mentioned that you tried to talk your son out of this career. He's a second lieutenant, and he's gotten a lot of training. What does he say to you about why he wants to go?
FREED: Well, he's actually a first lieutenant in the infantry, and I think his motives are somewhat complex. I don't doubt for a minute that part of is patriotism, and I think he feels a duty to serve. He, you know, he comes from a family that has a long line of military service. We've lost people in combat. We've got people wounded, but - and I think he probably was influenced by some of those stories growing up. But I also think too that, like all young men who have not been to war and who are intrigued by the idea of it, I don't think he fully fathoms at this point what it all entails and the horrific nature of it.
And I think, you know, in some cases, you know, people of his generation are influenced by computer games where, you know, you get shot and then you respond in 10 seconds and everything is fine and you continue fighting. And, of course, that's not how real combat works. You know, he's a very smart guy. He's a tremendous leader. He is very well-trained. And if I were the parent of a soldier under his command, I would be confident that he would do a good job and bring those soldiers home.
But at the same time, I think that part of his motivation has always left me sort of puzzled. It seems as if the stories that I told him about my very peripheral experiences being in a war zone seemed only to make it sound even more attractive and, you know, I have some regret in that regard. That whatever I told him in some small way, perhaps, or maybe even a large way influenced him to take the course that he is now on.
CONAN: Again, we wish your son the best of luck. Thanks very much for being with us today.
FREED: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
CONAN: David Freed, a novelist and former correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. He joined us by phone from his home in - his office in Santa Barbara. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.