The Truth, Mainly - 06/04/2007

Time for us to own up
by Leon Satterfield

Growing up in a church where admission of guilt was mandatory, I was always trying to feel guilty about something or other. The idea was that if I didn't feel guilt, that would be the most monstrous sin of all because it would be a denial of a very important church doctrine: In Adam's fall we sinned all—and we're all headed for Hades unless we get up in front of our brethren and titillate them by confessing our sin.

So we would do that, sometimes very red-faced and full of self-loathing, sometimes feeling virtuous as all get out because we were making a public confession that would crack open the door to Paradise.

I no longer attend the church I'm supposed to have grown up in and I no longer have to invent sins to ask forgiveness for.

I have remnants of guilt that occasionally burp up to the surface. The most recent burp has to do with my time in the U.S. Army back in 1954-56. I was in the infantry and took my basic training at Ft. Bliss, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, and at Ft. Ord, California, about 10 miles from the Pacific. Both were eye openers for a kid from Kansas. After basic, I served my time overseas.

Why, you may be wondering, would I feel guilty about that?

OK. I'm going to be brutally honest: I had a great time after basic training. I got shipped off to Europe.

The only bad thing about it was that I got seasick aboard the troop ship and barfed all over the place, and then got seriously claustrophobic in the bowels of the ship where for seven nights we tried to sleep in fold-down bunk beds where we had about eight inches between our noses and the bottom of the bunk on top of us.

No medals given for that kind of suffering.

But everything cleared up when we arrived in Germany (ten years after WWII had ended). I felt all better after about two days on land.

I was stationed in Ulm, a lovely cathedral town on the Danube River. I never shot at anybody and nobody ever shot at me, and we got weekend passes to go nearly anywhere in Europe so long as it was on our side of the Iron Curtain.

Get this: On weekends and a couple of ten-day leaves, I visited London, Paris, the French Riviera, Rome, Frankfurt, Munich, Naples, Florence, and Zurich. I traveled by low-cost trains or no-cost U.S. military planes whose pilots would let us go—free of charge if they had room—to wherever they were going.

It was great fun.

I ate wonderful food, drank wonderful beer, explored wonderful art galleries and wonderful centuries-old cathedrals.

And I got an honorable discharge two months before my two-year commitment was officially over. They let me out early so that I could go back to college at the beginning of a summer session.

Thereafter I got G.I. Bill monthly chunks of money to help me pay for my books and tuition and housing while I was a college student.

And get this: The U.S. wasn't fighting any wars while I was in the army. I was in after the fighting in Korea ended and before the fighting in Vietnam began.

I had a great time.

So that's why I feel guilty every time I read about our current war in Iraq. Our guys getting blown up. Our guys following orders to blow up the bad guys—and having to live with the guilt of accidentally blowing up good guys who dress and speak and look a lot like bad guys.

And being led to believe that the guys they're blowing up are somehow the same guys who are responsible for the 9/11 atrocity.

On top of that, there's this difference: I was discharged two months early so I could be a summer-school student. A large chunk of our current GIs in Iraq have just had their military obligation there bumped up from twelve months to fifteen-by presidential decree.

They do what they're told to do for a year and then the year gets redefined as 15 months. No evidence that the poor guys who got their Iraq time extended were ever given any chance to choose between what they had agreed to and what our government decreed.

This at the hands of a president who ended his own military service several months before his time was up.

Every time I read about what's happening in Iraq, I contrast it to my time in the service and I feel guilty.

I hope the president does too. My childhood church experience insisted that acknowledging guilt is good for the soul. If that's so, surely our president is preparing his mea culpa statement.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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