Should I marry a military man?

I'm an East Coast Jewish intellectual woman -- what will I do in the cornfields of Iowa?

By Cary Tennis
Published November 16, 2004 1:37AM (UTC)
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Men! Have you heard? It's Masculinity Month at Salon! Send your questions about masculinity to, and I will answer as many as I can over the next few weeks in conjunction with an upcoming series in the Life section.

I'll leave it to you to define "masculinity"; I figure if it sounds like a question about masculinity to you, then it probably is. Please write today, as the series starts soon. I look forward to hearing your questions. Thanks. -- CT


Dear Cary,

I am in the grip of the worst anxiety and trepidation that I have ever experienced (which may not sound too impressive when I tell you that I am 18 years old).

I am a freshman at a Boston university, born and raised completely on the East Coast and formerly residing in a nice Jewish suburb where everyone is a doctor, a lawyer, a shrink, or married to one. My boyfriend and I got together in the middle of our senior year of high school and are still wildly in love --- he attends a Midwestern school and we see each other every two to three weeks via split-two-ways plane tickets. Last night he got down on one knee and asked me to be his wife, and I am typing this with a small but brilliant diamond glinting on my left hand.


I feel so alone -- the rest of my friends and age mates are drunkenly hooking up with people left and right, going out to clubs, and having melodramatic roommate dramas that they relate to me with narcissistically joyful misery. I don't want to do those things -- I had my share of wild-oat sowing when I was in my middle teens, and I know that while fun, such things are not endlessly diverting. In the end they leave one hollow and cynical, but my friends look at me with rolling eyes when I gently try to relate this to them. Everyone finds it scandalous that I am in a committed, monogamous relationship with someone who isn't even around on a daily basis, and the fact that I'm engaged now is just plain peculiar.

It is now radical to do what every young woman thought of as normal and expected a mere two generations ago. Lots of people are telling me I am insane, that I am too young to tie myself down to one man forever (although many people are insultingly pessimistic enough to say, "Well, you can always divorce him if it doesn't work out"!), and that I will regret this. They say it even after knowing him for almost a year and acknowledging how nice and loyal he is, and how crazy we are about each other.

I am terrified of marrying him.


I love him completely, and I couldn't ask for better treatment or companionship or sex. He is a true-blue, patriotic, poetry-writing, philosophy-debating sensitive guy who is willing to put his life on the line for America and doesn't give a damn about material things. I want to raise children with him and sleep in the same bed every night and cook for him and be delightfully retro with him -- but I don't know if I can bear to leave the East Coast. He will be in the Air Force after college; it is his chosen path in life -- but this means that he would be stationed in some godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere! I want to be a book-writing, head-shrinking New York City intellectual slash devoted mother of five.

I am scared of the Midwest. I know this is such a clichéd bias, but it is 100 percent accurate -- when I visit him he is the only good thing there. It's too flat and clean, people are too polite, everyone has hard, extroverted, cheerful, cornfed Christian faces, and everything just feels so alien to me.


I have read your column for long enough to know that people suffer the most for what they regret not doing; in large part that is why I so badly want to make a go of this. I know that I will never meet a better husband than him. But I don't want to end up resenting him when I am stuck in the middle of an Ohio cornfield for years on end, cut off from everything I care about besides him. I wonder if it's too big a sacrifice, because it makes things all about him and his career. I know that technically I can be a book-writing head-shrinking intellectual anywhere in this great country, yet...

Please give me some suggestions as to how I deal with the coming cognitive dissonance. How common is this coastal fear and loathing of the Midwest? Am I just being neurotic? Why doesn't anyone believe in marriage anymore -- and am I naive for wanting it? Will having children young sap all of my writerly ambitions and abilities? Am I throwing away my youth? Will I be divorced at 22 because I can't go around the corner for a bagel and lox with an egg cream? I'm not trying to be flip about this. I'm so confused and terrified and giddy from looking at this goddamn ring.

Also, I don't think I'd be wanting this traditional life so badly if 9/11 hadn't happened in my impressionable 15th year --- the world feels like such a threatening place, and I just want someone beside me while it all comes to pieces. Maybe that's cowardly. Can you please slice through this fog that's engulfing me?


Northern Belle

Dear Northern Belle,

I sense you've been seized by something noble and old-fashioned, a spirit that's wholesome, martial and erotic all at once, like a World War II movie set in New York. It seems to come right out of history, this fairy tale of yours, as though born in that awful collapse of buildings, those screaming jet engines, that terrible rumbling explosion and the fleeing faces.


You make me think of my mom and all the other soon-to-be war widows of the 1940s, how they assembled on the piers to wave the ships over the horizon because they knew that was it; things might not ever again be that good, though they were not so wonderful anyway. A stinking fear was upon the world; something harsh and metallic was marching across the vineyards of France; the seas were exploding and submarines were lurking outside our harbors. They married quickly then because they didn't know what would happen next; they had kids as fast as they could, lest we run out of youth. That's where we baby boomers come from, that feverish fear of war and the exuberant after-party.

And now, 60 years later, we're there again, shaken again to our very bones, acting a little crazy all of us.

What your friends seem to be saying is, you're missing a great opportunity to waste time and screw up. I don't much credit their concerns. You've got a far better thing going with this ring on your finger. But since we're the reality-based contingent of this mad, mad nation, you and I ought to go over a few practical matters.

First, if it won't dampen your spirits, I would suggest a long engagement. There are too many questions yet to be answered: How well will you do moving from base to base? Is your love stronger than tedium and exile? Is it stronger than political disagreement? This is the military you're talking about, after all, not Harvard University. Will you be the only Jewish intellectual wife on base? Oh, and there's bound to be plenty of woman hatred: In a business of killing, who wants reminders of what life has to offer? Who wants a moral argument in the moment of necessary slaughter? Who can afford to think about it all, really, when it comes time to act? So there will doubtless be times when nothing you believe in makes any difference to the people who are signing your orders and packing your furniture. Orders are orders and all that.


If you're married to an Air Force guy, you'll belong to the military as much as he does; you'll become, in fact, a kind of national property. It could wear a little thin on a spirited gal, I'd wager.

And then there's a paradox at the heart of your attraction to the military. Yes, in the fear that settled on us like atomic dust after 9/11, the military does seem like a great protective blanket we could throw over our shoulders. But it's protection in the midst of great danger. You might be safer on the streets of New York.

And what are the dangers?

Every calling has its pathologies. The intellect has its pride and arrogance; the spiritual life its frail foundation in unprovable faith; mathematics its crystalline proofs that shatter like glass every time a new genius goes to the chalkboard; and the military life its orderly cartoonishness, marshaling extravagant waste to absurd purpose, warping minds to blind obedience.


And what about the killing that pilots do from such great heights? If he becomes a pilot and begins dropping bombs, will you find yourself wondering who the bombs fell on, what kitchens were atomized in an instant, who was standing at the stove when the air became a hammer? Will it be the kind of military marriage where you don't ask where he's been and whom he's killed? Or will you pose your morality against his necessity and create a domestic stalemate? Either way, well, these are just things to think about, which is why I say, much as I admire your spirit, go for a long engagement.

Meanwhile, my hat's off to you. You're the kind of gal that makes this country what it is.

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