“So what is Memorial Day really about?” Elihu asked me yesterday. Hmm. I gave him the simple answer for the time being, and told him it was a day on which we remembered the people from our country who served, fought and sometimes died in the wars. A churning of conflicting thoughts on the subject began inside me. I needed to get to this one. I needed to express my feelings to him, as mixed as they are, on war and the culture around it. For now it would wait, but this conversation would happen soon.
The Fourth of July, Memorial Day and such patriotic occasions always bring forth a swirling mix of ‘yes, buts’ in my mind. Yes, we should remember, bless and thank the people who served, but weren’t these wars for the most part just crazy, vain and wasted efforts created by a few insane leaders? When my son was born, we’d just stepped into the mire of a fresh new war. I remember being on bed rest in the final days of my pregnancy, lying on the couch and watching in disbelief as bombs were dropped in the far-away Middle East on cities and towns that no doubt contained women just like me, in the last stretch of their own pregnancies. I was stunned and heartsick. My baby would be born as a new war began. Shock and awe indeed.
Shortly after Elihu was born I had a what folks these days like to refer to as ‘a light bulb moment’. It was more of a paradigm shift, really. Now holding in my arms a tiny babe, a creature that manifested pure vulnerability and love, I could no longer remotely even begin to justify – or understand – war. I watched George W. on the screen and searched for the father in his eyes. How must he have felt the moment he first beheld his two tiny daughters? Did his heart truly stir with that certain, specific and intense love that only one’s own child can inspire? And if he did understand that love, as I’m sure he must have, did his own feelings about the children everywhere in the world not profoundly change as well? I mean, just how can he possibly sanction the bombing of a community that will no doubt result in the absolute terror and physical pain of young children, and the loss of their beloved parents?? As a parent it was sealed for me now. I could no longer accept the need for war. I could no longer justify the injury or death of innocent people – of any people. I could no longer keep their tender humanity vague, fuzzy and cloaked by geographical distance. Everyone, every last person, is someone’s baby.
When I lived in Dekalb, Illinois I would attend the town’s Fourth of July celebration in their beautiful municipal park, on the sweeping lawn under the canopy of ancient elms and oaks. The beloved and white-haired band leader of the town would lead the orchestra under the large, clam shelled roof of the bandstand. Fireworks would accompany the final number, the classic 1812 Overture. Before that flashy conclusion the orchestra would perform a medley of armed forces themes. The conductor asked that those who’d served should stand and be recognized when the theme of their branch of the armed services was played. As soon as the new familiar melody sounded, men all over the audience would stand. I was amazed at my own feelings in witnessing this. It was touching, it was tearful, it was good. I wondered at all the personal stories behind these figures. At the conclusion of the theme, the audience would clap for these heroes, and then they would sit, to be followed by the next group of soldiers. What really stuck with me was one man in particular. I’d passed three Fourths of July there in that park, each time in my own little spot by a certain tree from which I could easily see the stage, yet could avoid the thick of the crowd. Beside me, about twenty feet away, I would see the same man, sitting in his lawn chair, bedecked with pins and emblems on his casual summer outfit. He sat alone. He registered nothing on his face. Yet each year, when the Navy theme played, he slowly rose from his seat and placed his hand on his heart. I saw in his face, read in his entire body, a story of intensity. What his story was I will never know, but the meaning was hard and real. I watched nothing but him, as carefully and tactfully as I could so as not to make him aware of my attention. But nothing could have distracted him from the world he was reliving in that moment. The first year I saw him I was intrigued. My second year there I was happy to see him, the third year I was fascinated. Talking to people is usually quite easy for me, but as I pondered how to approach him, what to say, how to even begin, I just gave up. It just didn’t feel right. My witness was enough. Enough to honor him, enough to open me up to a world I’m usually quick to disdain.
I think of that man now each Memorial Day, each Fourth of July. Through the ether I send him my love and my gratitude for the actions he took, but mostly I thank him for the conviction of his beliefs – the sense of real purpose that inspired him to serve in spite of the fear and danger he faced. I myself believe that not one war since the Revolutionary War has been about the protection of our country’s freedom. In my mind, this man served a false cause, a reality contrived by very few, but bought, sold and believed by the multitudes. The need to protect was real for him, and so it was real on some level. But for me, war can never be real. It is a game played with living chess pieces, flesh and blood pawns that serve not their own interest, but those of the men choosing the strategies, making the rules. The only rules on our tiny planet should be to live, love, encourage the same in other creatures, and look for understanding when there is none. If everyone had the same shared goals of helping their neighbors to live as well as possible and if no one could find it remotely tolerable to see fellow earth-citizens living in lack, war would not be an option. If these truly were core, unshakable beliefs in each person, if we treated the welfare of others exactly as our own, then we wouldn’t need a Memorial Day. Many may say I’m naive, that it’s not that simple. But I believe it is. When one is tuned in to one’s connection, one’s similarity to all others, one knows that war is simply not a choice. Sadly, the folks we look to for rule-making and value-setting have a lot of airtime and money. These influential people have lost their sense of connection to fellow humans and found instead a malignant yet seductive substitute for it in the realm of power and self-protection, which in their minds fully justifies such violence. It looks like it’ll be awhile yet before we can experience a world-wide paradigm shift together. But it’s coming. This internet world will reach further and further, connecting more people than we can imagine today. When we are all finally able to see each other, to connect, to witness each other’s sameness, each other’s humanity, then we will all realize the illusion for what it’s been all these insane years.
But my sincere thanks and gratitude go out, nonetheless, to all those who willingly accepted the duty of service in the armed forces. And my love goes out to all the families torn apart by the loss of those who chose to serve.
God Bless America. God Bless Afghanistan. God bless every last one of us. Even George W.