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INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps it was a coincidence that I found myself talking with Al Barker as the leaders of this country debated whether to engage in military action in Syria.
Barker is a World War II veteran. He came on the radio show to talk about Indy Honor Flight, a program designed to honor aging veterans by flying them to Washington, D.C., so they can visit the World War II Memorial.
Barker enlisted in 1943, when he was just 17. He saw combat in the European theater, got captured and became a prisoner of war. He was transported on a prolonged march from one POW camp to another. Along the way, he witnessed deaths that he described as “unnecessary.”
When the war ended, he was not yet 20.
The experience left scars.
For 28 years, Barker said, he held on to a lot of anger and bitterness toward the German people about what he’d seen.
In 1973, during a business trip to Europe, he decided on a whim to travel with his wife into Germany for the first time since the war’s end. They drove through the country. By the end of the journey, he was able to forgive and let go of the pain.
As I listened to Barker describe his experiences, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion we have been having about using force in Syria.
In that conversation, we talked about difficult issues and asked tough questions.
Should we enter into fighting without knowing how we can get out? Should we let people continue to die while we talk? Who appointed us the world’s peacekeeper? Do we have a moral obligation to stop wholesale death and suffering if we can?
We pay tribute often to the people who serve in America’s military and treat them as heroes, because they are heroes. The process of saluting them, though, sometimes relieves us of the responsibility of acknowledging what going into combat does to them.
I asked Barker to characterize his wartime experiences. He sat silent for a moment, collecting himself.
Then he said that William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general, said it best.
War is hell.
In the years since the end of World War II, our country has been involved in conflicts around the world. Often, there has been little discussion in the run-up to the fighting, as a series of presidents have looked to get around having a debate or discussion about the decision to fight.
We have called our forays into combat “police actions” and “limited wars.” We often launched into them quickly and then found that the getting out was much harder than the getting in.
There is grumbling now that President Barack Obama isn’t acting decisively and that he is evading responsibility by asking for congressional approval to engage in Syria. The truth, though, is that our Constitution does not place the authority to declare and make war exclusively in the president’s hands.
It spreads out that authority, housing much of it with Congress — and a lot of it with the House of Representatives, the chamber that is supposed to be closest to the people.
I asked Barker if he ever had read or seen anything that accurately conveys what war is like.
Again, he sat silent for a moment and then he shook his head.
“I don’t think it’s possible to describe it,” he said.
Barker said that he does not regret his service, even the time he spent as a prisoner of war. He said that the war toughened him and gave him discipline.
Doubtless that is true, but two years of horror and nearly 30 years of pain afterward strike me as an awful lot to ask of a person, particularly someone in his teens.
That’s why I’m glad we’re having a prolonged debate about Syria.
If we’re going to send young people into circumstances that may carve deep scars in their lives — that is, if they’re fortunate enough to come back — the least we can do is think long and hard before doing so.
The Al Barkers of this country take their responsibilities as soldiers seriously. We need to take our responsibilities as citizens every bit as seriously.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and publisher of The Statehouse File, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
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