Torah and the US Army

Today, November 11, is Veteran’s Day.

I served in the US Army from 1972 to 1975 as an Electronic Warfare Intercept Operator in the Army Security Agency. Basically, it means that my contribution to the Vietnam War effort was sitting in an air conditioned building in northern Thailand listening to the radio for eight hours a day.

I have the distinction of being one of the youngest Vietnam-era veterans: I was 17 when I enlisted, and it was near the end of the Vietnam War era. Even though the normal enlistment age is 18, you can join at 17 with parental permission. My parents were very ready to turn me over to the Army! It was a tremendous experience for me. I was a high school dropout – but to get into military intelligence, which is what I wanted, you had to be a high school grad. So I took a GED, and had my high school diploma 9 months before I would have had it if I had stayed in school. I like to joke that the reason I eventually got a PhD is just because I thought it would be cool to be a high school dropout with a PhD.

The Army was an excellent experience, and an unbelievably productive time of life for me: during my three years in the Army I completed my Associates and Bachelor’s degrees (thanks to the Army Education Centers and the University of the State of New York’s External Degree program), earned my pilot’s license, my black belt, and had the pleasure of living in Thailand for a year.

In retrospect, I can also see that some of the values I learned in the Army prepared the way for my later love of Torah. Here are a few comparisons:

  • In basic training I learned to follow orders. Obeying the mitzvot, of course, is an essential part of Judaism. At the same time, I was taught that I was obligated to use my head, and NOT obey an unlawful or improper order – just as Abraham teaches us to challenge even God if God seems to be doing something wrong.
  • In basic training I learned the basic military skills like how to shoot (I qualified as expert with the M16); while the Jewish tradition does not generally glorify war, David was certainly a soldier and even Abraham was accompanied by his armed men when he confronted the five kings to get Lot back.
  • In basic training I learned the value of discipline, and Judaism is certainly the most disciplined religion I know of with all of our rules surrounding everything from what we eat to how we pray to how we conduct business.
  • In Thailand, I learned the craft of intelligence, which the Torah speaks of in several places, including the 12 spies who scouted out the land in the days of Moses, and the spies in the days of Joshua who went and checked out Jericho.

It’s OK to disagree with the politics that may send soldiers to a particular location; but we should all appreciate the effort and dedication of all our soldiers and veterans who put their lives on the line to keep us free and safe.

Happy Veteran’s Day!

Reb Barry

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