Mine is not a family of military men and, for the most part, we have not lived in a country of military men. We have lived in and through times when the country was fully mobilized, even militarized, and lived in long periods when most in the country barely knew it had a military.
Besides my father, a few other family members served. My mother's uncle fled the drudgery and danger of Pennsylvania coal mines for promised adventure and glory in France during World War I - the Great War, the war to end all wars. He was gassed and sent home to die, but he survived. He spent the rest of his working life at a shipyard near Philly.
On my grandmother's wall, there was a picture of a distant ancestor in Civil War uniform staring down from his oval frame. I doubt we could come up with his name now, but I remember his story. He served in the Union Army near the end of the war, and then went back to the anthracite coal mines. Family lore said he died when an outcropping, stationary for years while generations of miners passed it, shifted one day when he had the bad luck to be under it.
And for every family member in uniform like him there was probably a wild Irish miner in Pennsylvania coal country who joined the gangs that blocked troop trains until President Lincoln threatened to send the Army to settle them down.
Many families can produce a photo of a father, grandfather, or great-uncle in uniform. But most American homes do not have halls lined with rows of portraits of soldier-ancestors that stretch back centuries.
I graduated high school during the height of the Vietnam War. The following year I drew a "lucky" number in the draft lottery, which meant that I would not be drafted unless the Soviets landed in New Jersey. Most did not volunteer during that war, including me. Less fortunate high school friends and classmates were drafted or enlisted under threat of the draft and sent to Vietnam. Most returned and most, like my father, worked through their memories. Some took decades to do it.
The relationship of Americans to things military may be an example of "American exceptionalism," a term too often abused or misapplied. In the case of the country and its wars, the phrase might have meaning. Maybe we are exceptional, but in danger of becoming less so.
As bad as the last two decades have been with too many killed, wounded, and traumatized, and too much treasure spent far from home, it has not been a period of total war or mobilization. For better, but in some ways for worse, war has not touched the lives of most Americans in ways they cannot ignore. A small number of families have felt the full impact of the war. The rest have had the option of going about daily lives.
I do not disparage or disrespect those who serve. Quite the opposite. Nothing good happens to ideals if no one believes that they are worth risk and sacrifice. And little good comes if a small slice of the country always pays a heavy price while the rest of the country hardly notices.
We need more choices than small, terrible wars largely ignored and fought by the few, and huge horrific wars fought by all in the name of national survival because a crisis was allowed to fester and grow. For my father, my son, and all the rest of us, we must pay attention to the choices.
Michael Carroll is a Philadelphia writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.