I am 19 years old, in the last year of school. At that age, you believe that you know all, and the worst of it, is that you genuinely accept that. During my adolescence, I read a lot about the war — Clausewitz, all the books that Time-Life and Folio made together about the Second World War, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, Jünger’s Steel Storms, among others. For a while, I thought the war was glorious, and going to fight for ideals was the best way to defend them. I now believe that killing someone is the stupidest possible way to fix a conflict.
At that time, my country was in a rather intense civil war. The guerrillas were very close to taking the capital of the state: they attacked a small town that was less than half an hour away. That was a few years before my graduation.
As the day of my graduation approached, there was a lot of conflict in my life, a lot! My parents were divorcing and having lawyers involved in everything was very stressful. At school, I felt very clueless. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I had failed my Black Belt karate exam, and I was in a deep depression.
At this time, I realized that the war in my country was being fought by the poor, and the wealthy class just didn’t care. No one from my school or the other high-society schools had an interest in fighting. Everyone was aware of that, but no one spoke about it. It was an undeclared civil war, with the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, which almost took the capital of the country.
I remember hearing the explosions in my house … I could listen to the rattle of machine guns in the distance, very close to the capital. That was in ’94, in full adolescence, and at one of the times, I read more about war. Desperate struggles in the foul forests of Borneo in World War II or the bloody battle of the Somme, Little Bighorn, the Alamo, Passchendaele in the First World War, D-day… It was tough for me to see the indifference of my society to the current civil war, and nobody seemed to care. It was not a topic of recurring conversation in my social circle because practically nobody spoke about it. That reminded me of the Vietnam War, where the United States once put the dead, and the “Saigon Cowboys” enjoyed the pleasures of their city helped by widespread corruption in the ARVN.
So, I decided that I was going to fight. Not to provide military service to go later on to the province of Sinai in the Persian Gulf, where the children of the privileged did their service after doing basic training; they spent time watching the peninsula and, after that, take the hard decision to visit the many countries that are nearby in Europe or Asia. I did not want that, I wanted to fight, to do something for my country, and face those people who thought so differently from me. I had read how the communists had killed the tsar in such a horrible way. The massacre in Czechoslovakia, the repression of villages not committed to communism and, within communism itself, the constant control of the population. Also, I had been educated in a very traditional family, where democratic values were fundamental as well as liberal ideas, where everyone could think and say what they wanted. I had the utmost regard for those ideals. Also, seeing my parents amidst that bitter conflict of their separation made me desperate to be somewhere else.
School was over, and it was time to do something definitive. Going to war became everything for me… When you’re a teenager, one is very stubborn. Although adolescence ends at 20, one never ends up becoming a complete man. That (from my current point of view) is something that nobody will ever achieve. The true adult man never stops learning about life and himself. An adult is not someone who has a wife, house, and children. An adult is someone who knows his limits, who very much appreciates what he has achieved in life and the love of those who surrounds him. An adult is a person who respects himself, who knows about the concept of empathy, who knows how to be patient and who knows how to consider different ideas. Even if they are entirely contrary to his own beliefs. An adult knows that all people fight daily and that nobody knows clearly, why we are here. That is the reason why he is calm and why he knows how to listen to others and pays attention to himself and is a person that is always looking for full awareness in order to have proportionality in his life… balance.
In adolescence, one does not understand that concept. The only thing that one considers is the extremes: good or bad, fun or boring, pretty or ugly, being cool or nerdy, famous or unknown by others … There are no intermediates, and the adolescent barely sees them. That was my way of thinking. So, go to war, go to enforce my principles through violence and pointed bullets, go to fire with a rifle or machine gun, to mow lives, to burn houses. So go to war to patrol infected jungles, to watch my friends die in combat, to sleep badly in the mud, alcoholism, to have a post-traumatic stress disorder in a war that nobody cared about … Yes, that was with all the assurances of my recently acquired 19 years old.
That was until I decided to communicate my decision to my parents, to them, who were also in full war to separate. The first one who knew my decision was my dad. I remember talking about that in what was the playroom in my childhood apartment. I sat down with him and point by point, I explained why I was going to war: because our social class didn’t care, because it was a war where only the poor fought, a battle that almost reached our house in ’94 that it was time to do something! My father looked at me carefully. He is a philosopher, also an industrial engineer who likes administration a lot, and he said seriously: By killing someone who thinks differently from you, you generate a lot of pain to the family of that dead guerrilla. If you create an enterprise that employs that guerrilla and give him a decent and well-paid job, you give him and his family a lot of happiness. Which do you think is the best option?
The simplicity of the argument left me stunned … I didn’t know what to think at that age of 19. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of reasoning. Still, I did have a little bit of humility to respect my father’s experience. I didn’t say anything at that moment, I had to think about this deeply. For me, it was the flags waving with the wind, the military marches the medals, the heroism in combat … a pure teenager thought. Throughout history there has always been that: in the first world war, in the second, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan (USA and USSR), in the Franco-Prussian War, in the Napoleonic … In a word, I was not the first to feel it, but it was undoubtedly the FIRST time that I experienced that feeling in my life.
After a deep reflection, I realized that my father was right: the war was not a puerile adventure but an experience that could create a lot of pain, both by my hand and by someone else’s hand in case of being injured or killed on the battlefield. I was already determined … I didn’t want to exercise violence. One of the teachings that karate left to me is that it is to be used for defense only and friendship.
Now the issue of the lottery in the army was coming … In my country at the end of the 90s, theoretically, all suitable men had to go to military service. The military usually holds a mass meeting at a public school to do a lottery. I belonged to a private school in an area where there were only public schools. According to the regulations of the army, this meeting was to exempt the two best students from each school who have had the best results in the state exams. Also, for the others to make the lottery of when to leave -if at the end of the year, at the beginning of the next or in the middle of the following year.
The night before that meeting, I could not sleep. I remember staying at a friend’s farm: his parents were not there and I stayed up all night. The movie I remember seeing was the JFK murder starring Kevin Costner. The theory behind the film left me stunned. My thoughts flowed between my duties and seeing how justice sought to solve a murder that shocked an entire country. I still doubted whether to volunteer in the army. With my friend I arrived at 7:00 in the morning at the auditorium, we watched the process with tedium for 6 hours. Thinking that the draw was in alphabetical order, oh surprise! The military passed our spot and didn’t call us. We had to wait until 14:00. We were the last, and many were hungry. The doors closed, and only my promotion remained on the premises.
A colonel told us that because we were from the G school … they were going to rescue an “old tradition” the raffle to know who was going to serve in the army and who was to be saved … blue ballot goes away; the yellow one is saved from going. At that point, I considered that a disaster: how to be from a privileged school allowed us to save ourselves from being in the militia. Right there, I decided not to go: killing someone was not going to bring a remedy to the corruption of my army. I didn’t want to go to a place where the same existed there as in my society: stratification.
They put us in line. I had not slept in more than 24 hours. I was in eighth or ninth place. I remember that the first one was saved, and the next ones took blue. I meanwhile advanced and concentrated. I said to my left arm yellow, yellow, yellow, while I touched it with the right … When my time came, I reached in without hesitation and took the first ballot I could. I extended my arm up and stared at the ballot from below … yellow! It looked like a scene taken from a movie: that ball over my head, as far as possible from me, and I was looking at it as if it were the sun of hope after a terrifying night. It was a moment that did not last more than a second, but I could see and feel it as if it lasted a decade … At that moment I ran out screaming yellow! Yellow! Thank you very much for not having gone to the army. Unintentionally I hit the colonel in my excitement and saw his eyes in rage knowing that he would not be able to take it out on me in the militia … I was glad not to go.
In the end, my friend gave me two golf tees, one yellow and one blue, to remember the event. He went blue. After three months of basic training, he went to Sinai to enjoy one of the best moments of his youth.