One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

War Requiem

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War — the cost of war — seems worth consideration on the occasion of Memorial Day 2010. Perhaps you have seen the movie Brothers. It will be in the same spirit, I hope, that I reflect a bit on the cost that any war brings, however necessary it might be. I will do this by quoting two poems and directing you to some wonderful music using poetry as text.

World War I,  “a war to end all wars” according to President Woodrow Wilson, generated lots of verse. British poets, in particular, found the pity in wartime, and as Wilfred Owen wrote, “the poetry is in the pity.” Owen fought and wrote about fighting, as in a letter to his mother just after his arrival in France:

“I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.”

The 25 year-old Owen was to die in battle just one week before the armistice on November 11, 1918.

When Benjamin Britten, the pacifist English composer, was commissioned to write music in honor of the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (which had been destroyed in World War II), it was Owen’s World War I poetry and the Latin Mass for the Dead to which he turned. The piece, for large orchestra (with the addition of a chamber orchestra), three vocal soloists, and chorus, alternately rages against and laments the ravages of wartime.

The War Requiem ends with the Owen poem Strange Meeting, sung at the première by an English tenor and a German baritone, no coincidence as England and Germany fought against each other in both World Wars.

In this poem (excerpted below), the narrator finds himself in the bomb shelter and sleeping quarters below the trenches of the enemy, “down some profound dull tunnel,” as part of a night raid where he encounters dead and dying soldiers. There, he and his enemy recognize their shared human bond:

…Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell

“Strange friend, ” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness.
Whatever hope is yours, was my life also…
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled…

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”

The English language changed because of World War I. Phrases and references to the word “trench” became part of common parlance, as in the phrase “in the trenches” which still refers to working at a hard, grinding task; and even the phrase “trench foot,” which led back to a type of frost bite common in the muddy, cold, wet, and verminous condition of those dark places inhabited by the warriors.

Or, how about “trench fever,” a bacterial infection associated with the lice that bred there. The expression “No Man’s Land,” plays back to the space between the trenches — between you and the enemy trench — which could be a few hundred yards. It was the place belonging to “no man” or side in the conflict, and it was the place where no man could easily survive. So too, when one army decided to launch an attack on the other, they had to go “over the top” of the trench and into hostile fire.

But it was to a much earlier use of the trench in warfare that the poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart would refer.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was born on 17 August 1888 in Wales, and fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli on the Chersonese peninsula during World War I, not far from the site of the Trojan War.

Gallipoli was a disaster for the British. Shaw-Stewart was on three days leave from the front on the island of Imbros when he wrote the untitled poem that follows. It refers to the Trojan War as represented in The Iliad, so a little background is required to better understand it.

The war began soon after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the wife of one of the Greek kings (Menelaus). The Greeks organized their own expeditionary force and followed Helen to Troy so they might retrieve her.

Many years into the conflict, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, stopped fighting because the leader of the Greeks (Agamemnon) had taken away Achilles’ concubine. Achilles’ rage and his decision not to fight is called “The Wrath of Achilles.” In addition, Achilles knew if he returned to battle he would not survive the war. Despite this, he resumed the fight and turned its tide, with the goddess Athena beside him, both shouting in a trumpet-like, horror-inducing scream to make the Trojans flee.

Achilles and Athena stood at the ditch in front of the wall built by the Greeks to protect their ships. Achilles’ head was surrounded by an aura of flame created by the goddess (to which the poet refers in the heart breaking last stanza), so better to terrify the Trojans, who panicked and ran away.

Shaw-Stewart tells his own Illiad-like war story from the standpoint of his temporary leave from fighting:

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles ;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese :
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not-
So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Much like Achilles, Patrick Shaw-Stewart survived the Gallipoli campaign, but not the war.

He was 29 at the time of his death.