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A Gen X Father Sends His Son to War

I grew up scared of the USSR. Now my son’s signing up to fight Putin

The authors son holding a marine sword standing in front of american flag

In November of 1983 one of my high school teachers called me at night. “Are you OK? Do you want to talk?” 

I had just finished watching The Day After, a prestige ABC miniseries about nuclear war and its aftermath. Teachers had been advised that children might be despairing after viewing it.

I was fine. Mutually assured destruction was scary, but not as scary as the stories from my Marine Corps father (“the Colonel,” as we called him) — or at least the stories he hinted at. I knew he went to Southeast Asia a few years before the Vietnam War. I knew he’d done bad things. (He knew a suspicious number of torture methodologies.) I knew that his dead comrades were all listed as “training accidents.”

He raised my brother and me with a paramilitary mindset. We were expected to enroll in martial arts and to practice hand-to-hand combat with him. When other kids went to summer camp, I was sent to mountaineering survival school.

Yet through all of this, he drummed a constant background beat of anti-militarism. When I turned 18 and went to register for Selective Service, he told me, very seriously, “You don’t have to do this.” I ignored his advice and signed up anyway.

Many years later, sitting at his deathbed, I showed him ultrasound pictures of his grandson, whom he would never meet. I told him that we had picked out a name, Maxwell. He cried. I tried to read him rousing war stories from Bravo Two Zero, but he wept every time I got through a paragraph. 

Eventually, I stopped trying; eventually, he stopped breathing.

Maxwell was born a few months after the Colonel died. I told friends, “I went from wiping my dying dad’s ass to wiping my newborn son’s ass,” and this was a true thing. Life and death: Both feature a lot of ass.

Maxwell grew up with a strong interest in toy guns and video games in which he shot things. By the time he was 17, he told me he was seriously considering the Marine Corps. Some of his friends were involved in a newish branch, cyberwarfare, where they were counter-hacking the enemies of the U.S. He wanted to do it. 

Before I had time to consider what this meant, he was taking an oath and swearing to service.

“You know the Russians are the grand masters of cyberwar, right?” I told him. “They’ve been perfecting it for over a decade. You won’t be going up against some JV team; you’ll be playing the all-stars.”

“I’ll be busy, sure,” he responded.

When Vladimir Putin ratcheted up the pressure, putting his nuclear force on the equivalent of Def Con 2, I asked Max if he was worried about nuclear war. “Not really,” he said. But what about his friends in school? Were they thinking about a postnuclear radioactive wasteland? “No,” he told me. “They’re worried about getting drafted.”

It hurts my heart that the Colonel will never meet Max. They would have adored each other — the old warhorse and the weight lifting nerd. When Max graduates from boot camp, I am going to give him the Colonel’s officer’s sword. And there will be a weird, ridiculous thread connecting our three generations — boomer, Gen X and Gen Z — a dull, obsolete, decorative sword. Because, as we're reminded in the opening of every Fallout video game, “War, war never changes.”