I was in a firefight once. I could tell you about it, but then I’d have to kill you. Besides, it was in my misspent youth. Still, to my credit I didn’t shit my pants until after the bullets stopped flying. But I can attest that the only film that caught the sound of a bullet whizzing by your ear exactly right was the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. David Hume had it right. There are certain sounds or smells or sights you only have to experience once to stick with you for the rest of your life. The mind has an uncanny way of picking out what noises are important.
It’s often said – too often in fact – that there are no atheists in a foxhole. That’s bullshit. Trust me when I say that the last thing anyone is thinking about in a firefight is whether there is or is not a God. I didn’t think about it then, nor since. And this notwithstanding that, of my two areas of specialization, one is the Philosophy of Religion. Why not? Because for me the interesting question is not whether there is or isn’t a God, but rather, whether He is or isn’t, what kind of God He is or isn’t.
It’s often said – perhaps not often enough – that it’s only in retrospect that we can recognize those moments in our lives that make us who we are. I didn’t know it at the time, but that firefight was certainly one of them. My second area of specialization is the Philosophy of War.
But I do remember a moment when I knew it was an important moment at the moment. I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Callao, the port city adjacent to Lima, Peru. It was February, 1968, and I was reading an English-language Time Magazine report on the Tet Offensive. And I remember thinking to myself, “This is an important moment in history!” And, well, it was.
Moments have a way of conspiring. That firefight, coupled with the Tet Offensive, a military coup five years later in Chile, and no doubt a thousand other radically contingent events, set me on a path not entirely – perhaps even entirely not – of my own choosing. How not? Because being a Humean fatalist, I’ve decided that life is just something that happens to you.
Some people would rebel against that concession. I like it. No, not because it relieves me of any responsibility – it doesn’t. I like it because it makes life a place of surprises. Some frightening, yes. But mostly delightful. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but certainly with a horseshoe up my ass. But always with an appreciation that “There but for fortune …”
There but for fortune my Bolshevik grandmother would have been killed rather than just crippled by the Cossack bullets on those steps leading down to the harbour in Odessa in that scene made famous by Eisenstadt’s Battleship Potemkin. There but for fortune seven years later her papers would have arrived on time and she’d have been in steerage on that ill-fated maiden voyage of the unsinkable Titanic.
There but for fortune other moments would have conspired to produce yet other lives, though none of them would have been mine. I have no idea what moments have conspired to produce this one. But clearly I’m having what’s called a senior’s moment. Not to worry. It’s only momentary.