Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day reflections and struggles

Well, even on Eastern time, it was still before midnight when I started this post, and at 12:30 AM I'm almost ready to go to bed. Perhaps a sign of returning sanity...

A delightful Sunday, all told. A peaceful and serene drive to Toledo through almost unbelievably light traffic; talking with a number of church and AA friends while on the road; a wonderful reunion over Tony's Ribs in Findlay; seeing pictures of sister San's step-grandchild and pictures of their travels and adventures as president and first lady of their HOG (Harley Owners Group); and hearing of my late father's family connections at the funeral of a cousin back in New York state. Then sister Sue, husband Jeff and I came back to Toledo to watch TV and wind down from the day. In short, the specifications for a really good day.

It's Memorial Day weekend. For a goodly percentage of the country, this is a time to celebrate an extra day of weekend, to cook out, spend time outdoors, and perhaps watch fireworks - all of which are good things, but none of which are really the central thing of this weekend. And, as every Memorial Day, I am of two minds on this day.

My father was a World War II vet in the US Army Air Force; afterwards, he served stateside in the Air Force Reserves for more than 30 years, until he died from cancer in 1978. He rarely spoke of his war experiences, no matter how much he was asked about them. But Memorial Day parades, military base visits, and picnics were a staple of my growing up. From him, I learned the valuable lesson of respecting those who served in battle - something I would have gladly run from, if I had been called - and honoring their sacrifices.

By the same token, I am also a child of Vietnam, Watergate, and the infamous Iran-Contra affair. I remember a President telling me, "I am not a crook," and then seeing proof to the contrary on national news. I remember the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and the frisson of fear as I listened to Alexander Haig declare, "As of now, I am in conrol here in the White House." While I am glad to be an American, and I celebrate the freedoms won for me by others, I sure haven't believed my nation's panties have been spotlessly clean for a long time.

I really had a lot of strong doubts about our current president's motivation for the Iraq war. I doubted there were such things as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and only grudgingly accepted that there might be a good reason to ensure that if there were, they should be removed. When there were none to be found, I believed it was time to get out - recognizing that there had been a mission, and it was accomplished, and we should be done. While I honor the service of the international military command laboring in Iraq, I also believe the time is long past for them getting out. And I believe that every American inury and death subsequent to determining that there were no WMD's has been a triumph of obedience on the part of our soldiers - but that otherwise it has been a tragic waste to support our president's agenda.

I know that view isn't popular - and in many ways, it's only ancillary to the topic. And you don't need to flood this blog with charges of being un-American - because nothing could be further from the truth. I must remember, however, that the primary purpose of Memorial Day is not about waving the flag to support the president, his party, the entrenched bureacracy, or the war that is ongoing.

It's about the people who came back damaged or dead, and the sacrifice that they made. And it's those men and women, and their devotion to the ideals of America and its leadership, that I honor today.

The folks at PBS tried to do that earlier tonight - first, with a broadcast of the National Memorial Day Concert from the south lawn of the Capitol building in Washington, and secondly with a special on Arlington National Cemetery. I have to admit that while I wanted to enjoy the concert, it seemed a very jingoistic rah-rah for the war in Iraq, and didn't seem to emphasize the inordinate number of folks for whom Memorial Day was established who did NOT serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But there were stories of soldiers who had died - and soldiers in the audience from every war since 1900 - and I was happy for them to receive honor for their service. I felt sorry for the young men in wheelchairs, with eyepatches, with arms in slings - in some ways sadly photogenic, but completely unlike the ugly tragic truths of men and women with arms and legs shot or blown off, blinded, crippled...the ones that we saw on the news in Vietnam but who are so notably absent from American news in 2005.

I've found it hard to pray about a lot of things in recent weeks - but I had no problem praying for our soldiers, and those who served alongside them from a variety of countries, for the courage and strength to go on with their lives. I am reasonably sure that I could not do what they've done...

So I find myself torn in two on this Memorial Day. I am awash in awe and gratitude toward those who have served, and those who have died, in service to my country and in the protection of my freedom (including the freedom to question our national leadership). At the same time, I want to start singing, Gonna lay down that sword and shield, down by the riverside...ain't gonna study war no more... I can't help but pray for the fighting to cease.

And if there is to be sacrifice of life and health by our military, I pray to God to help us as a nation to ensure the righteousness of the causes for which they are called to sacrifice. I'd feel a lot better about this day if I were more sure that was the case.


Michael said...

I love this country and am grateful for all the benefits that I enjoy as a citizen. At the same time, I am a member of a minority that is the target of a lot of political bashing right now that would prevent me from enjoying some of the benefits that other citizens have, including the right to serve openly in the military. Gays can serve and die, they just can't be honest about who they are. An anomaly, to say the least, and one that conveniently reinforces the religiously projected stereotype of gays as self-centered, selfish and hedonistic.

I also do not equate my love for the country with agreement with everything it does or has done. Part of the reality of being a diverse democracy is that people who are patriots can see things differently and have a right to say so, vote accordingly and so on.

My father and most of my uncles served in WWII. One went to prison instead because of his religious beliefs. I myself was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, but my brother and my Partner both served there. When my Partner takes off his shirt, I see the physical scars it left. The scars my brother brought home are less visible, but equally real.

God bless 'em all -- those who served and came home, those who served and died, those who stood up for another truth and were willing to take the consequences of their principles.

It galls me to see a man who pulled all the strings he could to avoid actual combat taking the place of honor at Memorial Day celebrations and placing wreaths, though. There is such a thing as unconscionable objection, and it doesn't look pretty on the smiling face of a man who likes to dress up as a pilot to land safely miles from a conflict he started under false pretenses and in which thousands have died and continue to die long after he declared victory.

That man, depsite his office, is not the United States, however. We are. May we as a nation do more than just place wreaths. May we build a world where we never have to play that moving bugle call again.

Rodger Sellers said...

Very well said Steve. I find myself agreeing completely with you as to the "two-mindedness" of a day like today. (And know what you and others mean about the typical response some of us get for choosing honesty and transparency on topics like this! Thanks for the thoughts.