A Merry Christmas to Arms

  • Share
  • Read Later
I'm writing this because I'm not one of you, not really. Because I'm a part-time soldier whose number has not yet come up, an Army Reservist for whom serving his country in wartime — serving it where the war is — has so far been purely theoretical. I'm writing this because I can. Because I'm home for the holidays, and thousands of you aren't.

I'm enough of a soldier to suppose you're maybe not as sad about this Christmas season — and where you're spending it — as the folks at home imagine. You Marines, you Special Forces, you B-52 pilots and Navy men standing by off distant shores — this is what you wanted to do, this is why you joined, this is what you trained for. To be there when the day came that America needed you at your toughest and strongest, needed you to be at the 'tip of the spear,' to hunt and track the source of Sept. 11 and cut out its heart.

There never was a nobler reason to miss Christmas. A few thousand of you are making 250 million stateside holiday seasons a little safer, a little happier at the end of a year in which feeling safe and happy in America has maybe never been harder. I figure you know how lucky that makes you, to be a soldier of democracy when — and where — the soldiers of democracy are needed most.

I still wish I was there. I had a brush with your kind of service — more of tease, really — when my unit reported to Egypt this October for Exercise Bright Star. There was plenty of talk that it was just a way station, that our two weeks in the sands had an option to buy another six months in the mountains and caves, but it never happened. Not our turn yet.

So I came home, and told everyone no, I didn't go off to war. I told them what a great adventure I'd had, rumbling through the desert in a Humvee, soldiering alongside French and German, Greek and Italian, Kuwaiti and Egyptian, practicing for the next international war effort even as it brewed in actuality not too far away. I told everyone I wouldn't have minded going all the way, for six months and for real, and they all looked me with you're-crazy smiles. Some of them even said I was brave, just for wanting it.

No, I haven't earned that adjective yet. Theoretical, put-me-in-coach bravery comes pretty cheaply when you've never been off the bench, and even more so when you're thinking only for yourself. I wouldn't be leaving behind a wife or a family. I wouldn't be sacrificing anyone, and no one would be sacrificing me.

But I stand by my bravado, and I stand by my envy, because it's got to feel good when your job, your country, your world actually demands you, at your best and bravest, instead of merely being tolerant of your existence. I'm still a theoretical soldier, whose bluff has yet be called — you guys are living it.

So Merry Christmas to some real soldiers. To the Marines, to the Special Forces, to all the Americans who spent this season peering rifle-first into caves, tiptoeing through the minefields, helping Afghanistan take another shot at freedom and America strike back in the name of thousands of innocent dead. To the men and women opening letters instead of gifts, and draping festive mine tape on a tumbleweed Tannenbaum. I won't pretend to know for sure whether you're lucky to be there or I'm lucky to be home — maybe neither, maybe both. We'd all be luckier, I suppose, if none of this were necessary, if Osama bin Laden had stayed a businessman and nobody ever killed anybody without at least looking them in the eye first.

But then all us soldiers would be out of a job.