I received an email from a reader, a Captain in the Air Force currently serving in Iraq, in response to my post "An Atheist Responds to Mitt Romney's Speech on Religion."
I felt honored that a soldier who is risking life and enduring hardship would write in support of the words I wrote. I wrote back to tell him that I hold what he is doing in high, high esteem.
After I sent my email back to this soldier, a thought struck me: How would I feel to have my son or daughter serve in the U.S. military?
After all, this blog is dedicated to finding the intersections between politics and parenting, and in some sense there is no more fundamental intersection. Carl von Clausewitz described war as "the continuation of politics by other means." I value politics. I value parenting. Where do I come down when their most basic principles -- the preservation of peace and the protection of my children's lives -- are irreconcilable?
As a citizen, I admire this soldier and others like him who volunteer to defend their country's interests. I know that it has become a tired refrain of politicians, but we really do "owe our freedom" to them...
As a parent, however, I want above all for my children to live happy, healthy lives...
Here's where I come down.
I will hope to raise my children to understand that they are obligated to their fellow citizens; that their freedoms, their privileges, even their hopes, would evaporate almost immediately if they lost their connection to others. I agree with Hobbes (in his famous, still raging cage match against Rousseau on how we are to imagine our pre-political state) when he wrote that life in a state of nature, i.e. without government, is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short."
So my children will arrive at their young adulthood with a clear sense of responsibility to their fellow-citizens. If called upon to defend their country, I believe that they would serve. And I would support them.
But I will never want them to serve in the military, however much I admire the service of others. That's the parent in me talking. I simply could not desire that they put themselves at risk.
I guess what I am saying is that when I became a parent I bifurcated into two selves. There is my former self, who still exists, who can examine life and death issues from the vantage point of politics and abstract concerns. Then there is my new self (let's call him Dad), who cannot brook any compromise with his desire to protect his children from harm.
This Dad in me is now a second self, and the former me has to live with him. There is no reconciling these two parts for a parent.
The highest honor (my child dying for a great cause, say as Abraham Lincoln could be said to have done for the Union) is immaterial to the Dad in me. Likewise, the worst shame (say, my child going on a murderous rampage of innocent people) is also immaterial to this Dad in me -- though it would be horrifying and heartbreaking. Nothing would change in my concern for my child's well-being. Being a parent is outside of systems of praise and blame.
When politics and parenting clash, there is -- there can be -- no reconciliation.