Out Into the World, and the Test

May 29, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- This is graduation season, and soon high school seniors by the thousands will be listening groggily as television personalities, superintendents of schools, county commissioners and other authority figures explain to them the meaning of life.

Nobody asked me to address the new graduates. But as this year one of them is my son, I've given some thought to what I'd say if they did. It might be something like this.

As the ongoing D-Day 50th anniversary events can't help but remind us, you are graduating into a unusually peaceful world. In fact, it's probably much like the world your grandparents' generation hoped the war they were fighting half a century ago would make possible.

Today, many 18- and 19-year-olds are nervously wondering if there will be a job for them, and if so, whether it will be socially meaningful and personally fulfilling. But at least you will have the freedom to go look for one, and if you don't like the one you find you can look for another. There is no war awaiting you. There is no military draft.

At the end of May, 1944, many 18- and 19-year-olds were in uniform and far from home, wondering if they would still be alive in a week, or a month. Many would not be. It was a different time.

course there was a war in your parents' generation too. Some of your parents fought in it, and others went to great lengths to avoid fighting. Some demonstrated against it. Some were even able to ignore it and get on with their lives. But while it was going on, it was a grim and spectral presence at every high school graduation. There is nothing remotely like it standing here today.

So you're fortunate people, in a way. You listen to the old men now, the ones who survived the assault through the cold surf onto Omaha Beach or fought in a hundred other hellish places, and they will tell you how scared they were, and how they saw their friends die at their sides, and if you have a grain of sense you're thankful you're living now and not then.

But on the other hand, what pride there is in those veterans' faces, and what memories they have -- memories not just of war, but of youth and love and shared adventure, of lasting friendships made, of the joy of homecoming, of families reunited at last. Many who served in that great undertaking may have wished they had, in some way, been able to serve better. But precious few wished they had never served at all.

A quarter of a century later, members of your parents' generation had a very different experience. Some of them went to war inspired by their own parents' example, and found that although war itself had changed only in insignificant ways -- it was still an awful business -- the concept of peace had changed a lot.

Peace at that moment in history seemed to be, not something earned by victory, but simply the absence of war. A country with that point of view made those who had been warriors in its service feel like criminals. Many, having been asked by their country to fight and having fought bravely, felt cheated and dishonored upon their return.

For years afterward, there would be a bitter separation between those who had fought in that unpopular war, and those who had avoided service or fought against it. That division is healing now, but the scar is still there. The chances are it will never go away.

So the generations before yours were seared and changed by different wars in different ways. One was brought together, another was divided. One acquired a confidence in the global destiny of the United States that time would eventually prove illusory; another had its confidence shaken in a way that time would eventually prove unwarranted.

Now it's about to be your turn. Although there is no war at the moment, it won't be easy for you. You're sure to be challenged too.

The world you're heading into is still full of slogans, propaganda and other high-sounding nonsense. In years past it was thought that these annoyances were the products of misplaced patriotism, and flourished primarily in time of war. But it's now apparent that they're just as virulent in time of peace.

Those who have been in combat usually say that they fought, not for flags or vague concepts such as national honor, but for much simpler and more tangible things. They fought for the others in their unit, and to win the respect of those -- their families, friends, communities -- about whom they most cared. They weren't much moved by rhetoric, by newspaper editorials, or by the sentiments they'd heard from graduation speakers.

They trusted their instincts, and their instincts served them well. Whether it is in peace or war, when you as individuals and as a generation are inevitably put to the test, I have no doubt that your instincts will serve you well too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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