A Father to His Enlisted Son


I WAS not surprised to learn from your letter that you had finally decided to enlist in your country’s service; and I found myself at once in a turmoil of conflicting emotions. I wonder if I can tell you just how I felt. I was proud of you, my son. I realized that you had for months and months been revolving and re-revolving this question in your mind, and that this decisive step had not been precipitously taken. You had talked it over repeatedly with me, and even more frequently with your mother. You had listened with eager attention to the advice of those of your friends who were older, as well as of those who are of your own age. We were all pretty unanimous, you know, iu opposing your plan. We honestly thought that, as you are only eighteen years old, and as your education is incomplete, further training in school and college would make you more efficient in the aid that you could later render your country. We thought that in later years—when we have emerged from the welter of this relentless war, and when the world has once more swung back into sanity and repose — you would keenly regret the loss of your diploma and this grim interruption of all your school associations.

Perhaps we were wrong. We older folk, we are discovering, have been wrong in many, many things. The shadows of war that have hung over this darkened earth ever since August, 1914, have shown us that we had for years and years been groping through ignorance and gloom, all unconscious of the errors and the misconceptions in which we were so deeply and so unwittingly enshrouded. Perhaps these present war-shadows through which we are now threading our unknown way are in reality no deeper and no less perplexing and menacing than those through which we had previously walked in the bold assurance of ignorance and error. The facts were before us, but we refused to face them. Prussia had for years been preaching its soulless doctrine of Pangermanism. Treitschke and Nietzsche and Bernhardi had boldly proclaimed a philosophy which was in harmony with the nefarious plans of the Junkers and the war-lords. Men with the boldness and the intelligence of M. Chéradame saw these dangers and proclaimed a general warning. But what did such an abstract view as Pangermanism mean in face of the concrete interests in which our trivial lives were centred — the fatuous game of piling up dollars, the relative merits of the popular ‘movie’ actors, the batting averages of the prominent baseball players, the securing of a high place in society’s column?

Then I realized, too, how inaccurate and false had been my own analysis of international questions. I had for years felt that civilization had brought us to a plane where war was no longer possible. I think I must have told you of a conversation I had with the president of our company in June, 1914. He had just returned from Europe, where he had, as he thought, been able to gauge accurately the temper of the European peoples. He knew that there were bitter national hatreds, and that the war in the Balkans had produced a maze of perplexities which might, in an ancient and less humane order of affairs, have led to a clash of swords among the major powers. But through the years he had been soothed with the lotus and the poppies of the Hague Conferences, and he, like the rest of us, had felt that all such difficulties would be smoothed out by diplomatic assurances or friendly arbitration. Moreover, he had been thoroughly convinced that the great bankers of the nations, realizing the vast network of credits and loans, would never again consent to a declaration of war. All this he came back to repeat to our confiding and credulous ears. He had no trouble in convincing us that he was right. We, ourselves, had long been lulled by the same false siren tunes that had beguiled him from the bare and palpable truth.

For my own part, I had gone even further. I felt that we had reached a plane of humanity that would in a few years make disarmament quite practical. I had actually believed the optimistic utterances of the Massachusetts Peace Society and the International Conciliation pamphlets.

I mention these errors, my son, to let you see that, while I opposed your enlistment at this time, I opposed it less vigorously than I should have done if confidence in my previous judgments had not been so rudely shattered by the crashing thunders of 1914. If I had been wrong in this analysis of international conditions, might I not also be wrong in this question, which was more difficult because it could not now be impartially analyzed?

Some day, I hope, you will have a son of your own. As you watch him on the day of his birth, as his tiny form lies by his mother’s side, a gush of tenderness such as you have never known will come to your aching heart and fill you with a sense of sobering responsibility and obligation. There will come with this a wave of parental love that will expand your soul and reveal wells of unsuspected emotional depth. Coincident with this will come a great surging ambition. What sacrifices will you not be willing to make, provided only your vicarious hardships ease the path for your offspring and lead him to places of distinction and honor! No school or college will be too good for him, and already, while he lies breathing out those earliest dormant days, you will be busy planning his life and removing in fancy the obstacles that so tragically blocked your own early ambitions and desires.

Then gradually, as he grows up and develops tastes alien to your own, you will begin to question the source of these strange perversities, and wonder where in the wide, uncharted universe he ever picked up the strange whims that so capriciously beguile him from the path which you in your wisdom had laid out with such meticulous care and foresight. Suddenly, too, you will learn that he has outstripped you in certain branches of useful knowledge, and will find yourself turning in his direction for help and guidance in matters where your own experience was too meagre to meet the exacting demands of such trivial matters as — gasoline or electricity.

You will perhaps discover, too, that all the major plans which you had laid for him conflict most horribly with traits and temperaments which he is developing. You think, of course, that he will want to enter your office and carry on your business. Instead, he will some day bluntly inform you that he has no such intention — he is going to Paris to study art. What does he care for billets and pig iron and the Bessemer process — they can all go to limbo, and he will go to France to follow Whistler’s ways. And thus he will leave you to readjust yourself to the new conditions which his independence has imposed.

Oh, of course, it won’t turn out just like this! If it did, it could now be no surprise. What actually happens will be nothing which you ever thought about, but it will be something stupefying and absurd — something that will send you back to your private office, force your hand through your fast-thinning hair, and make you wonder at the strange perversity of youth. And you will be overwhelmed with a sense of terrible disappointment. Then you will, for the first time, perhaps, begin to understand your own father’s feelings, even though in so many respects the situations are so different. For my plans for you have, as you well know, woefully miscarried. I have not, as many fathers do, expected you to follow in my footsteps. Chance has apparently guided my career, and somehow I felt that it would largely guide yours; but I never felt that it would guide you into the work allotted to me. I wanted you to go to college — preferably, to Harvard. I wanted you to sit in the same class-rooms and gaze at the same jackknife carvings that used to beguile me through some of the sleepy hours in Old Sever. I wanted college to give you a thousand such trivially important things as it gave me, and I should have liked it to fail to give another thousand with which I could so profitably have dispensed.

But now all this, and the fancy-laden sequence of all this, is not to be! Instead, I pick up The Lampoon, and I listen to R. E. Sherwood as he interprets the modern message of John Harvard: —

Go forward, my son, for the bugle-calls beckon; The grim god of battles has called you away; Go forward, my son, never halting to reckon The price your Creator may bid you to pay.

Yes, the god of battles has come to interrupt the plans I had made for you. He came somewhat hesitatingly into America, but not hesitatingly enough to avert the shock that has set all our homes a-tremble. He came with a slow and leisured stride, but he has pinioned our hearts with the might of his pitiless pressure. Everywhere I go, fathers and mothers are telling me about their sons. This one is with Pershing’s army, this other one is in the aviation corps in Pensacola, scores are in the cantonments, impatient and restless, longing for the active service into which our transports are so soon to take them. As these parents tell me of these details, a glow of pride is in their eyes; but I know — oh, how much more personally I know it now — that, behind the pride and the calm, hearts are throbbing with anxiety, and the vacant chairs in the dining-room and around the fireplace mutely speak their grim story of loss and poignant yearning. Yes, they tell me the last letters were full of hope and cheer and the boys were all well. But that was three weeks ago, and what is happening right now ?

How shall I speak of the temptations that you are sure to meet, my son? Don’t think that I am going to preach to you. My little homilies have been spread pretty thickly over the brief years of your past life, and if they have not been woven into the fabric of your unphrased philosophy, they cannot now be abruptly gathered into the pattern. But we who are older and a bit scar-worn would so gladly enlist in a sort of moral signal-service that would warn you of the presence of lurking enemies. I need not specify them — you know we have talked them all over. You in your own way are the only one who can conquer them. I have faith in your strength. Are you not strong enough to give your soul its orders and see to it that each separate command is implicitly obeyed? It is only thus that strong and enduring character is developed. It is only through this experience and triumph that you can return to your home, your mother, and your friends, and carry in your soul the sweet satisfaction of knowing yourself to have been valiant, pure, and reliant.

I learn from your mother’s letter that your single blue service star now hangs in the window of our lonely home. Another, amid many more, hangs in the vestry of the church. In fancy I shall select the one I call yours; and I shall have faith that, in the midst of the red, which symbolizes carnage, and the white, which symbolizes purity, your period of enlistment will but deepen the blue, which symbolizes loyalty.