Boys into Men

I went to a quiet meeting yesterday at the local Veterans Resource Center in the small rural county where I live. At the meeting were 25 vets, family members of vets and a few others. From that small group flowed gut-wrenching stories of suicides, addictions and shattered minds and bodies.

As a young man I’d gone to war in Vietnam for the adventure of it. What a fool I was. But I was hardly alone. Every war has recruited eager young men looking for adventure, seeking to prove their worth as men. And every war has left behind the wreckage that these young men did not foresee or chose to ignore.

I can imagine what it must be like to ride in a Humvee down a road in Falluja where the day before some eight-year-old has planted a bomb that killed your best friend. I went just once out near the A Shau valley, into triple-canopied jungle so thick that it was dark at noon on the forest floor. There could have been an entire regiment of North Vietnamese only 50 yards away and you would never know it until the first bullet sang past your ear or tore into your body. I didn’t know what fear was until I’d been in a place like that. Two years later I walked down the shadowed sides of streets in California to avoid sniper fire.

And on the other side of the gunsite, imagine nineteen year-olds just three months from their malls and video games looking through the crosshairs of their weapons at another human being they’ve never met and never will and pulling the trigger.

Nobody should have to experience these things. Which brings me to three thoughts:

I just finished reading The Palace Files by Jerry Schecter and Nguyen Hung, a carefully documented exposé of the Nixon/Kissinger strategy to prolong a lost war in Vietnam in a vain attempt to salvage American prestige and their own political careers. It cost of tens of thousands of lives. By all means, let us blame the old men in power who have forever created wars, especially those who have done so driven by their own ambitions, ideologies, ignorance and pathologies.

We can worry too about cultures--including ours--that are rapidly losing any capacity for settling disputes through honest and committed efforts to work for the common good. As the governance of our (and other) nations sours into partisan warfare at home, how can we expect to do any better abroad? Fearful of perceived enemies within and without, we stereotype, we hate, and by our example teach our children to fear, to stereotype and to hate.

Finally, we need to find ways to initiate our boys into manhood without sending them to war (young women go to war these days too but someone else must speak to them). I speak to the boys who want so much to become men but whose guidance comes mostly from videogames and peer pressures and the adrenaline and testosterone coursing in their veins.

Thank God there are many boys who have strong, positive male role models in their lives. But boys need to be initiated into manhood not just by their fathers and uncles, but by their society. Native Americans initiated boys through lengthy, significant and often dangerous trials at the end of which they were welcomed into the company of men and from that moment were expected to help take responsibility for the welfare of the tribe.

We don’t need to send our boys into the wilderness for a month with pocket knifes in order for them to become men, but we do need to pay much more attention to developing appropriate rites of passage, following periods of study and trial. Using models that are thousands of years old, those periods should focus on heroic values of courage and compassion. They should build the skills and experience of service, a sense of responsibility for the common good and a capacity for reflection that in time will lead to wisdom.

I wish someone had done this for me.