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 onto 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 onto a lot of anger and bitterness
toward the German people about what he'd seen. It wasn't until he was on a
business trip to Europe in 1973 and 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
In that conversation, we talk about difficult issues and ask
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 – the last war
about which we Americans seemed to agree – 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 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
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.
The founders of this nation wanted to place a check on the
potential for a runaway executive branch. And they wanted to make sure the
government took the steps to bring a nation that was unified into conflict,
should the need arise.
That is a good thing.
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
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 still 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
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 service powered by Franklin College
journalism students and faculty.