Monday, May 31, 2010

Honoring The War Dead

Atrios linked to this column by E.J. Dionne:

Why is it that every Memorial Day, we note that a holiday set aside for honoring our war dead has become instead an occasion for beach-going, barbecues and baseball?

The problem arises because war-fighting has become less a common endeavor than a specialty engaged in by a relatively small subset of our population. True, some people slipped out of their obligations in the past, and military service was largely, though never exclusively, the preserve of men. The steady growth of opportunities for women in the armed forces is a positive development. I say this proudly as someone whose sister is a veteran of the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps, as is her husband.

Can we ever return to a time when we pay proper homage to the service of our warriors, living and dead?

Was there ever such a time? A time when proper homage was paid to the service of our warriors, living and dead? And what was that homage? What should it consist of? The danger is that it will glorify war instead of glorifying the warriors.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall (depicted above) is a beautiful way of remembering those who died in that war. So is the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier. But most public statues paying homage to warriors depict the leaders, the powers of the war, or give us that stereotyped image of the valiant soldier defending the woman cowering behind him with several children hanging on to her hems and a few in her arms. If we use the latter frame for honoring the war dead we are also demanding a certain interpretation of wars: They are there to protect women and children.

Which isn't the case, in terms of the motivations of most wars (which are about access to resources and power) or in terms of whom to blame for wars.

Yet of course warriors have traditionally protected their own women and children, though not the ones belonging to the enemy. They have also protected other men, including older men. But the story is always crystallized as the protection of women and children.

Perhaps wars like the war in Congo remind us that the role of women in wars is often horrible: To serve as the tools of war and its collateral victims. We don't have a public holiday for the victims of wars, I notice.

All that is a long way to explain why honoring the war dead is not as simple as E.J. Dionne insists. Certainly the sacrifices of those who died in wars should be remembered and respected, and their names said out aloud. Certainly the veterans should be treated better in this country. But there is a difference between honoring warriors and honoring war and also a difference between honoring all who died in wars and only those named as its warriors.

And not all the war dead died in the war. This is an essay I wrote some time ago, based on a family story:

He loved horses. When the enemy approached and the village had to be evacuated it made sense that he would go with the horses. Someone had to, and most of the adult men were already fighting the war. He was fifteen, old enough to go alone. And the horses needed someone with them in the train carriages, someone they knew, someone they trusted, someone who could stroke them gently when the bombs went off, someone who could stop them from shivering. Later that time meant for him the frightened eyes of the young colt, the foam around its mouth, the long dark carriage without food for animals or for people. The sound of the engine and the song of the weapons.

He loved horses. The following year he was old enough to go to war, a man now, all of sixteen. He was good with horses, so they made him a messenger boy between the artillery units. He would ride the horses with another boy, someone he made friends with. It was almost a summer camp for them, a lark. They were heroes! They were men now! Until the day when a hand grenade exploded under what only a moment earlier had been his friend on a horse. Red. So much redness. More redness in the world than he could imagine.

After that day he grew used to the redness and the war. He did what he was told to do and he survived the war. Peace broke out, and his life was suddenly there, all open, for him to step into. Life. Light and silence or only ordinary noises. He could learn to like it. The war was over. He got a job, a wife, children. The war was over.

Then came the nightmares. They would gallop across his sleeping mind, hooves red with blood, gallop and gallop in a war that never ended. Sometimes he would drink until the galloping stopped. Sometimes he would look into the mirror and see a young man, intact, and then he would think the nightmares were just dreams. Sometimes he would look into the mirror and see himself filled with blood, all blood, ready to explode.

Nightmares cannot be stroked, cannot be made to stop shivering. But he grew used to them. He learned how to live around them, how to forget the war when he was awake. How to be on guard. He never knew what might explode, who might turn into an enemy. He had to be on guard, had to have rage, had to ride it like a horse, towards some invisible goal of safety. Had to ride roughshod sometimes, over people, not around them. Had to. Had to teach the children so that they wouldn't be shocked by the redness or the blood or the trains coming and going. Better they know when they are little. That way nothing can hurt them later, nothing. And had to teach them not to care about the horses or other living things. Too much blood. Too much to care about, too much to leave behind.

He used to love horses.