19. Choices

Bill and Patricia. The fictitious couple who graduated from high school together in 1960. Who attended trade schools to learn culinary arts and diesel repair.

Nice kids. Responsible, moral, and religious people making the right choices about their lives. Doing everything as they should. Giving thanks to God for the privilege of living in this country and worshipping as they please.

I struggled to write that story. But felt it was necessary.

The year 1960 was pivotal in many ways. It was a collision point between faith in God-given possibilities and the emergence of bad choices made by the world’s leaders.

That was my era, too. That is why I did not disguise the reasons for Bill’s PTSD. Reasons for his guilt and believing he had sinned.

Thinking his sins, the killing of so many people while a sniper in the army, might have something to do with Patricia’s decline.

That God was not only making her pay but taking away the one person in the world who could keep him sane. Make him feel his life was still worth living.

————–

My army experiences were divided between service as an enlisted man right after high school graduation, and commission as an officer after college graduation. Half and half.

Although I was assigned to a combat branch, I was not sent to Vietnam nor did I experience the trauma of a real shooting war.

Just lucky. The army did not tactically use main battle tanks in Vietnam. It was not that kind of conflict.

Over time I met many guys like Bill. I still do, as an AARP volunteer concerned about the welfare of retired veterans.

————-

Rewriting the storyline for Bill and Patricia was more difficult than with other fictitious scenarios.

For two reasons:

The first was Bill’s inability to psychologically “compartmentalize.”  The psychological condition called “cognitive dissonance” is a fancy term for being unable to separate religious beliefs and the assignment Bill was given in the army.

No one is sure why some people can dissociate value systems and others cannot. The military is now extremely aware of the problem. That was not always the case.

It is one thing to expect a pilot to press the button to fire a missile or drop a bomb on an unseen enemy. That can be very troubling.

But it is quite another thing to ask a man to aim at another person’s head or heart and pull the trigger.

If I had been one of the veterans in Bill’s church, those who suggested he enlist rather than wait for the draft, I would have had a serious talk with him about how military decisions are made.

Remember my reference to Sergeant York, and how impressed Bill was with his exploits as a military hero in World War I? York did not just object to his assignment in the infantry. He made a real issue of it.

He had a heart to heart conversation with his commanding officers about his Christian beliefs regarding the killing of another human being.

They listened.

Then he was given time to reflect on his concerns and make his own decision. York chose to fight, because he felt the cause was righteous.

But York was not proud of what he had done. He did not believe he deserved all the recognition he received because of his war record. He just did what his nation asked him to do in the name of righteousness.

And as far as I know he did not suffer as badly as Bill from PTSD.

————–

The second reason an alternative story line is hard to write is because of naiveté on the part of both Bill and Patricia. Their outlook on life was characterized by nearly absolute trust in authority figures and the belief in leaders or systems that seemed indisputable.

One term used to describe that level of trust is excessive obedience to authority.

I am not a professional psychologist, but I know something about that discipline. Both religious belief and patriotism can tend toward absolutism, with charismatic authority figures who are very convincing as to exactly what is right and what is wrong.

The history of humankind is rife with such extreme ways of thinking and acting. And the results are almost always disastrous.

As educators, my wife and I encouraged our students to think. To analyze. To examine all dimensions of an issue, thereby avoiding simplistic solutions to complex challenges.

My fictional “Bill” was raised with absolutes. Right or wrong. Although I did not include the fictional Patricia in that plot line, she probably was raised the same way.

—————-

I know this review of the Bill and Patricia story takes me into a controversial philosophical thicket. We live in an era in which people tend to avoid the wishy-washy middle ground.

But I cannot forget walking into my battalion’s office for the first time as a wet-behind-the-ears Second Lieutenant.

Behind the commander’s desk was a life-sized picture of General George S. Patton. Hands on hips. Two ivory handled revolvers on each of those hips. Bigger than life. Almost godlike. A face filled with resolve and a demeanor exuding confidence in himself and his rigid set of beliefs.

And yes, the lines actor George C. Scott recited in the opening of the famous movie were direct quotes from the real Patton. One of them was: Now, some of you boys, I know are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken-out under fire. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly.

I was told my job was to ensure the five tanks I commanded would annihilate the enemy. That was Patton’s credo — the absolute to which I was expected to pledge myself.

Did I accept that “absolute?”

Yes, but in the context of doing my job well and fulfilling the oath I took: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (So help me God).”

————–

An intervention for Bill, either before or after Patricia’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, would need to expose his misunderstandings of the oath he took. He could have, as York did, take advantage of the military justice code.

Too late for that.

The more significant intervention in the past or the present, would be his view of authority and interpretation of authoritative pronouncements.

Slowly, it might be possible for sensitive veterans, both men and women, to help him understand that all human beings live with contradictions every day.

That does not make them sinful.

It just makes them God’s children who seek the right way, while acknowledging and trying to do something POSITIVE about overcoming their failings.    

Continue to seek ways to take care of yourself.

©2020 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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