Monday, July 19, 2010

Divided Loyalties

Amy is an army wife, who met me for our appointment armed with an eight week-old baby and a stiff upper lip. She's impressively calm, considering her age (21) and her first-time mother status. That, and her husband has been on deployment for the last month.

"He was here for the birth," she chirrups, happily, nudging a pacifier into her baby's mouth. "I guess that's the important thing. And next week he'll be back. We have three whole weeks before he's deployed again."
"How long is his next deployment?" I asked.

Surprisingly cheerfully, Amy responded that Nathan would be away for six months. And, incredibly, she's happy about having a mere three weeks of her married life before he goes.

It suddenly occurred to me that I was never going to share her attitude.

I've always considered military service as a sort of relationship deal-breaker. This could cop me a lot of flack (no pun intended), but if you ship out, don't expect me to be here when you get back. Short of a major war posing a direct threat to our country, my policy is that your first duty is to your family. Asking to have a career in the field and a family waiting patiently at home seems to me a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

Nathan's enlistment is more than just a powerful contract between himself and the armed forces. It is an enormous sacrifice on the part of his family. Nathan will not be here to see his son learn to sit alone, to crawl, or to start babbling his first words. His son will miss the chance to bond with his father, imitate his voice or play with him. In effect, when Nathan returns from his stint overseas, he will walk into his son's life as a total stranger.

All alone in her comfortable, military-funded apartment, Amy will endure sleepless nights, tantrums, teething, colic, and probably at least one midnight trip to the Emergency department with a screaming baby - all without the support of her husband. A weekly direct-deposit into her bank account will be, for months on end, the only sign she sees of him apart from an occasional, rushed phone call from a ship's satellite. And when he comes back, a few months of respite before it is all repeated again. That, of course, is assuming that Nathan returns at all. It's hard to imagine the sleepless nights, the unrelenting anxiety that he might not come home... and the grim reality if he does not.

In the end, Nathan's career choice has left Amy holding the baby.

Amy is happy - at least for now. She respects her husband's career and certainly enjoys the benefit of being able to stay home with her baby thanks to Nathan's income. But, to me, it would never be enough. Nathan has sworn an oath and signed a contract stating that his primary loyalty is to his country - his family, by necessity, will come second.

To me, that's the ultimate deal-breaker.

What do you think?


  1. I heartily agree. This is an eloquent and powerful argument which lays bare the ruinous effect that military institutions can have on the lives of people and society at large.
    Personally, I couldn't imagine being in an intimate relationship with another human being who could even look upon the military in general without a shudder of revulsion.

  2. I'm not sure on this one - I both agree and disagree.

    First off, I agree that military service for anything other than a clearly justified war or peace-keeping operation would be a deal breaker for me. Despite the mantra of supporting the troops, they are not conscripts and as such, every one of them has a burden of responsibility to be informed before they choose to fight and kill. It would be impossible to be involved in the current conflicts if you were fully informed on their justifications.

    Secondly however, I disagree with your position that rating the family as second to a significant cause should be a deal breaker. I have a couple of causes that are core to my identity: environmental sustainability and human rights. I have a wonderful girlfriend, but if she made me choose, the choice is clear. One thing I love about her though, is that she would not make me choose - as long as I strove for balance at least.

    The reason I care about those two issues and would rank them higher than my own family is because of scale. They affect not only me and my family, but other people and their families as well. If there was a chance I could help a dozen families find justice and safety, how could I forsake them for the selfish comfort of my own (proportionally, of course)?

    I can understand how some people would see miltary service as just such a great cause, benefitting the lives of many others and justifying the personal/family costs. Unfortunately, the facts do not back this up.