IN THE haphazard, poorly centered snapshot taken a few days before their deployment Dec. 19, the guys of the 503rd MP Company, D-Main, 3rd Armored Division are scrunched together in what appears to be temporary quarters.
It looks as though they're having a time just trying to squeeze everyone in. Wearing the usual camouflage gear and showing off one of their rifles, no doubt the latest and best in military weaponry, they clown for the camera.
In the foreground, an older man, probably one of their leaders, looks as though he's being mugged by a couple of his men. He's all smiles. Most of them are, though a few affect the tough-guy pose. Staring at their young, older, black and white faces, one senses the close bond shared only by teammates on a very special athletic team or by men and women in the military.
My high school buddy, Bill, is also in front, off to one side. Recently promoted to first lieutenant, he wears a tight-lipped grin that seems appropriate. The photo is enclosed in his Christmas card. The note accompanying it is a sober one.
I've been trying to arouse in my high school students an appreciation, even a mere acknowledgment, of war. I have to admit that, until now, it has seemed a bit unreal. Over the holidays we were saturated with news from and about the Middle East, with detailed accounts of life in the desert and with personalized videos from husbands, wives, children, parents and friends. But it's not difficult to be numb, even disinterested, until one of our own precious family or friends is touched directly. My dad's and George Bush's generation and those who fought in Korea and Vietnam best understand, I suppose.
My freshmen are reading "A Separate Peace," John Knowles' reflective first-person story of life on a pristine New England prep school campus at the outset of World War II. Several weeks before the Iraqi aggression last August, if only by luck, I had made a most timely choice. Knowles' principal characters are beginning to come of age, performing death-defying feats like flinging themselves from a tree branch into a river -- rites of passage in preparation for their own call to arms. Nevertheless, at first, like my students and me, they remain insulated.
One of them pens this brief poem:
Is a bore."
However, later, the boys of the second class are forced, as I have been today, to face the grim reality of war.
In the background, as I type this letter, I hear talk from students about the predictions of world war by the 16th century astrologer/thinker Nostradamus. With the never-ending ethnic, racial and religious conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and the Soviet Union (even if the republics are set free, civil wars seem likely), we may be approaching the most serious threat humankind has yet encountered -- the threat of atomic self-destruction.
I try not to think much about it, but for me, in an age in which it seems only a matter of time before the most awful weapons fall into the wrong hands, the very concept of war is frightening.
I don't envy George Bush. I only hope he thinks very carefully, consulting the brightest of his advisers (and opponents), as he guides us through the current crisis. The world is in a much more precarious position than it was in 1942, the year of "A Separate Peace."
May God instruct those who need His advice. Meanwhile, my prayers are with Bill and all our troops, and with George Bush.
Jeffrey R. Sindler teaches upper school English at McDonogh School.