The Thrill Is Gone
By Harry Willson
JULY 19, 1999: I decided I had to check this one out in person at the Navy Recruiting Office, so I hied myself down there. The uniformed officers must have wondered whether this unremarkable but obviously too-old character was lost.
"I have a concern that I'd like to talk about for a few minutes, if you have time," I said.
"Sure. Have a seat. What is it?"
"My nephew is thinking of enlisting in the Navy, and I'm wondering if there's any chance that the experience might be bad for him."
"There's something for everybody in the Navy," the officer stated with a smile. "And what could be bad?"
I looked at his almost-black uniform, with the red and white stripes and stars, and wondered if I should proceed. Yet he was very friendly, so I told my little tale. "My son attended a family gathering back East a while ago, and my cousin, a retired Navy pilot, was there. Someone asked him if he missed flying. His reply stunned them all. 'Flying's no fun,' he said, 'unless you're droppin' bombs on people.'"
The officer smiled. "He must have been kidding."
"My son says the group spent quite a bit of time and effort trying to check that out, and they all concluded that he was not."
"Well, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, of course," the officer suggested.
I continued: "Now my nephew is thinking of enlisting. He's excited about flying -- the technology of it and the thrill that goes with it. But I'm wondering if it could affect his mental health or his moral character."
"Is he in school?"
"He's in college."
"What are his grades like? Very few who apply are accepted into the program, and only a small percentage of those accepted end up flying."
"His grades are excellent. My cousin made it. My nephew could, too. I'm asking about the possible effect on him, on his mental health. And wondering what could have happened to my cousin."
"Well, personally, I don't think he should have said that. People don't fly in the Navy because they want to drop bombs on people. That's, uh, sick."
"It seems so to me, too," I agreed. "But, also, in the Navy, if you're ordered to do such a thing, you don't have any moral choice in the matter. Isn't that right?"
"Yes. Well, there is such a thing as illegal orders. But, um -- " The officer hesitated, as if he already wished he hadn't brought that up.
"You mean like Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny?"
"But that doesn't apply to the daily flight-and-bomb run from the carrier to the villages in the jungle, the desert or the mountains. The pilot can't make a choice about that, right?"
We both hesitated. Finally the officer said, "I wonder what he meant. Some of those guys get addicted to the excitement of combat and find normal life dull."
"I've heard that," I said. "An old classmate of mine told me once, 'I've never felt so alive as when I was killing people and in immediate danger of being killed.' That was in Korea a long time ago."
"But that's the job we've accepted," the officer said. "We're proud to defend our country and its interests. When danger comes, we're trained to act, quickly and professionally, without thinking about it."
"So ... " I began to formulate conclusions in my mind. "If one questions the basic policy which defines 'interests,' thinking that it's totally immoral ... " I stalled.
"But we have to defend our way of life and our standard of living," the Navy officer said.
"I think 'standard of living' may be the clue which explains all this. And yet it's unfair for five percent of the world's population to control 50 percent of the world's stuff. Isn't it?"
"Well ... " He hesitated again.
"Isn't it? Unfair?"
He smiled wistfully. "Maybe so. But ... "
"And also," I continued, "if one wants to retain full responsibility for one's own actions, one better stay out of the armed forces."
"Well, that's not the conclusion I would come to," the officer said. "But, as I say, everyone has a right to his own opinion." He smiled broadly and extended his hand.
I shook it and left.
My nephew, without advice from me, joined the infantry.
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