A son heads off to war

David Freed is a screenwriter and former Times reporter who covered Operation Desert Storm. His first novel, "Flat Spin," is due out in May.

A few days ago, on a tranquil spring afternoon, I hugged my only son, holding back tears because he hates sappy stuff like that, and watched him go off to war. With luck, we’ll be together again around Christmas. I had hoped that I might see him sooner, but the mid-tour leaves that he and his soldiers had been promised got canceled amid Pentagon budget cutbacks.

My sorrow was tempered by great pride as we traded goodbyes. He is a born leader. During recess, he was always the kid who organized the games. In high school, he played back-up quarterback. Now, at 25, he is a powerfully built, self-assured infantry first lieutenant who has breezed through some of the Army’s most rigorous training, including Airborne and Air Assault schools. “Don’t worry,” he tells me. “I’ll be fine.”

I want so much to believe him. Yet given the vagaries of modern combat, I know that my son’s rank and extensive preparation offer no guarantee of his safety in Afghanistan or wherever else he may end up. He volunteered for this, I tell myself. This is what he’s long wanted to do despite my efforts to persuade him otherwise. And it is his life.

None of that, however, assuages my concern for his well-being -- nor, for that matter, my disdain for those who speak blithely of America’s need to prolong a costly and questionable approach to foreign policy without understanding the true impact on the warriors and their families, who shoulder the weight of that policy.

I thought about that when the story broke of Robert Bales, the Army staff sergeant accused of horrifically gunning down 17 civilians in Afghanistan. Bales has served under two commanders in chief without combat experience, and the vast majority of members of Congress who funded the two wars to which Bales was sent have themselves never heard a shot fired in war.


Mitt Romney, meanwhile, routinely vows that if elected, he will beef up defense spending so that “we” can continue to project freedom and democracy abroad. We? I am irked by his use of the collective pronoun, considering that neither he nor any of his five sons have ever been in the military.

Bales was on his fourth overseas deployment when he purportedly went on a homicidal rampage. No one at this point can say definitively to what extent, if any, his alleged actions were influenced by his combat record. But there is no denying reports that he was dismayed at having to go to Afghanistan after he’d already done three tours in Iraq.

Likewise, there is no denying the reason why tens of thousands of other soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen have had to go back again and again: because there simply are not enough of them to sustain the ambitions of tough-talking politicians, Republican and Democrat, who seem only too happy to pick fights and then let other people’s kids throw the punches.

Would upping defense spending, as Romney proposes, reduce the frequency of multiple deployments? Perhaps. But heaving more money at the problem misses the point. It’s not just about how many people serve. It’s about who serves. And those who are serving in America’s all-volunteer military are typically not the children of the politicians who occupy the national stage.

About 1 in 5 current members of Congress is a veteran, but less than 1% of their offspring are. There are some notable exceptions, of course. One of John McCain’s sons was a Marine in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Bo, put in a stint as an Army lawyer in Baghdad. Those who enlist today, though, are more likely to hail from a hardscrabble strata of society far distant from the halls of power. Politicians can talk all they want about how gut-wrenching it is for them to write letters of condolences, or attend memorial services for the fallen, but they really have no idea what it’s like to have a child or spouse die in battle, or to live with the lurking dread that they might.

Certainly those who join the military today know what they’re getting into -- or should. Nobody’s twisting their arms. Some, including my solidly middle-class son, are motivated to join for patriotic reasons, or because they, like him, naively believe that getting shot at sounds like grand adventure. But I suspect that most enlistees, including Robert Bales, sign up also because getting shot at it means a steady paycheck in a down economy.

The sons of Mitt Romney don’t have such concerns. Regardless of their patriotism, they each had many options beyond the military, thanks in no small measure to family money. The oldest helps run a private-equity firm. The youngest develops real estate in San Diego. Two other of Romney’s sons also work in property development or finance. The fifth is a physician. They often appear en masse at photo opportunities celebrating Dad’s latest primary victory. Meanwhile, far from public view, other bands of brothers and sisters -- soon to include my son -- hunker down in faraway lands, sweating out mortar barrages and hoping not to set off improvised explosive devices.

I remind myself that statistics are on my side: Hundreds of thousands of other parents have gone through the emotional hell that my wife and I now face, and most of their kids came back OK.

Still, I’m not sure how I’ll cope in the coming months. Will my heart race every time I hear a car stop outside the house, worrying that it has brought an Army casualty notification team? Should I try to keep abreast of developments overseas, worrying myself sick? Or should I purposely avoid the news in this paper and on TV, pretending all is well, that my son is OK, even if days have passed without a word from him?

One thing, though, I do know: My fears are something that neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama -- nor most of this nation’s leaders -- can ever fully comprehend.