May 27, 2019
There are few things on which I am more conflicted than the concept of a patriotic war to save democracy.
One month before I was born, my mother’s nineteen-year-old brother died on the sands of Iwo Jima. He died on her birthday, and I felt the earthquake even in the womb. As I grew up, there was nothing left in our house of his life but a few photos, a high school yearbook, and the dress uniform sent home by the Marines. He was too young to have built much more of a legacy.
But how we treasured him, our hero who died, and our heroes who lived – my Dad, Uncle Jack, Uncle Joe. How I myself considered joining the Navy as a chaplain during the Vietnam War – this at the same time as being arrested for antiwar protests at the Federal Building!
Even today, as a confirmed pacifist, I deeply honor and respect our active military and veterans’ bravery, selflessness and patriotism. We are a family who grew up in a military tradition which both elated and confounded us.
But in my heart of hearts, I believe that war is an aberration of the human spirit, legitimized by avaricious old men who are too quick to send other people’s sons and daughters into oblivion; who have the inhuman capacity to see the “other” as completely unlike themselves; who are too lazy, or comprised, inept, or downright evil to find another way to coalition.
I believe that the real victims of war are helpless women, children and elderly who are mowed down in its jaws. I believe they are the fodder of leaders grown fat on power and greed.
As I said, it is a conflict in me. I love the old WWII movies where every American is a hero, and every German and Japanese is an evil wretch to be bayoneted from existence. But they weren’t! They were men just like my Uncle Jim, caught in the failures of the leaders they depended on. As a result, their brave young bodies, no matter their country, lie in the depths of the Pacific or buried in a foreign field.
War is not glorious. It is not inspiring. It is a disgusting failure of the human spirit. And I think that, on this Memorial Day, we should be inspired by our beloveds’ lives and service to say,
WE. CAN. DO. THIS. DIFFERENTLY.
NO MORE WAR.
In the name of my family, I forgive whoever killed my Uncle Jim on a forsaken Pacific Island, especially when I read this powerful poem:
Kamikaze – by Beatrice Garland
Her father embarked at sunrise
with a flask of water, a samurai sword
in the cockpit, a shaven head
full of powerful incantations
and enough fuel for a one-way
journey into history
but half way there, she thought,
recounting it later to her children,
he must have looked far down
at the little fishing boats
strung out like bunting
on a green-blue translucent sea
and beneath them, arcing in swathes
like a huge flag waved first one way
then the other in a figure of eight,
the dark shoals of fishes
flashing silver as their bellies
swivelled towards the sun
and remembered how he
and his brothers waiting on the shore
built cairns of pearl-grey pebbles
to see whose withstood longest
the turbulent inrush of breakers
bringing their father’s boat safe
– yes, grandfather’s boat – safe
to the shore, salt-sodden, awash
with cloud-marked mackerel,
black crabs, feathery prawns,
the loose silver of whitebait and once
a tuna, the dark prince, muscular, dangerous.
And though he came back
my mother never spoke again
in his presence, nor did she meet his eyes
and the neighbours too, they treated him
as though he no longer existed,
only we children still chattered and laughed
till gradually we too learned
to be silent, to live as though
he had never returned, that this
was no longer the father we loved.
And sometimes, she said, he must have wondered
which had been the better way to die.
Music: Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings