"One of the main reasons that it is so easy to march men off to war is that each of them feels sorry for the man next to him who will die." ~ Ernest Becker (1925-1974).
I served in the US Army. I enlisted while still in high school in the Army Reserve's delayed entry program. I went to basic combat training over the summer after the end of my junior year. I then drilled with my unit back home until the next summer after I graduated, after which I went to my Army MOS school, followed by a BNOC course. Having completed those two tasks, I returned home to drill with my unit. After about a year and a half, I discovered that many of the ROTC cadets that also drilled with my unit were men and women I'd seen or met on the campus of Eastern Michigan University where I was a student.
It didn't take me long to see that most of these wannabe officers were not as good a soldier, scholar, athlete, or leader as I was. This evaluation was not based on vanity or conceit on my part, but upon measurable criteria. I ran faster, read a map better, smoked 'em on the rifle and pistol ranges, and outshined and outlasted nearly every one of them in every evaluated category. So when I requested an administrative separation from the USAR unit so I could enroll in ROTC, the unit had no problem with it. I became a cadet and later an infantry officer, commanding a platoon and later a company. I served in Desert Storm with the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division. It was all quite an experience.
Here is the hard part to admit: I really enjoyed it all too, except for the 74 hours of actual combat. By 'enjoy,' I do not mean that I was ecstatically happy writing reports, shining boots, and all the rest of the daily military routine. Nevertheless, after my confusing and awkward teenage years, it felt good to me to have an active and purposeful daily life. I found the dangerous element of military service very cool in a darkly appealing way that I've never been able to fathom, either then or now.
While my friends back home still lived with their parents and worked menial summer jobs, I was on my own and was getting paid decently, too (compared to their jobs anyway), as well as throwing live grenades, firing automatic weapons, rappelling out of helicopters, and doing other interesting, fun stuff. I was not mopping floors or wearing a paper hat and asking people if they wanted fries with their order, as they were back home.
Later, after I left the Army and I became more enmeshed in the routines of real life as well as more politically and morally aware, I came to see that other than for rare ad hoc defensive ops or emergencies, that military organizations are mainly used by the state to hammer their people down. Armies are used by the state to aggress and blindly and stupidly spend money for things not of a productive nature. I remember a communist anti-war propaganda poster showing two soldiers bayoneting each other. It had a slogan that went: 'The bayonet is a weapon with powerless men on each end.' The poor conscript who is being stabbed was probably the one doing the stabbing the day before was the point. That is the reality of state v. state warfare.
A friend has come to me and asked me to speak to his son about joining the military. I have known this kid since he was small. He is just as I was at that age. Bright, but bored and feeling as if he'll be damned if he will spend one more day seated in a classroom listening to another lecture, studying for a quiz, writing a paper, or reading a book that he couldn't care less about. He wants action! Adventure! To see what he is capable of and what his limits are. The mechanics of death don't scare him, they attract him. Ares' bile tastes sweet to his lips. I know these things from experience. So, what the hell do I tell him? That he may have to kill? That he may be captured, injured, or killed? That he could end up having experiences and memories that will haunt and depress him the whole rest of his life? He doesn't believe this is possible in his heart and never will until he discovers for himself what the reality of war is. However, then it will be too late.
I don't feel hypocritical at all in telling him all this any more than a lifer in a prison would about telling a young gangbanger that if he continues chasing delusion and folly, he'll wind up in a cell or the morgue. All the while knowing just as cynically that my advice won't matter one stinking bit to him, either. The heart desires what it will and conscience and presence of mind be damned in the matter. That is the very nature of young men.
I don't know what to say to my friend's son or to my friend, either. I cannot tell this young man not to do what he desires with any credibility. I sure didn't listen to my father about what paths I chose, and I seriously doubt that this young man will, either.
Fully understanding the actual nature of war simply cannot be learned any other way but by experience. More is the pity, too.