I’ve never been in a war, or even close. For reasons of both generational timing and family culture, our family has included preachers, teachers, doctors, artists & engineers, but few soldiers. My father served briefly as an army paramedic stationed in Georgia, but saw no action outside fighting off some fire ants and picking up after an accidental helicopter crash. My uncles served briefly before I was born, so I never saw them in uniform. My mother’s father signed up for the end of the Great War, but was sidelined while still in training by the 1918 flu pandemic.
I was born in a university hospital in 1967, and in the absence of real military personnel, my childhood consciousness of soldiers (beyond the cartoon villains of World War II) was formed in the cultural echoes of Vietnam and the My Lai Massacre. Military service seemed to me to be something to be avoided, a potential moral failure, connected with American arrogance, dishonor, and injustice towards the world around us. If you truly wanted to serve the country and do good (and I did!), you should go to the city and work for the poor (which I did, for ten years). Speaking of the Vietnam War in his 1967 speech, Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence, Martin Luther King, Jr., said:
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
This past January, listening on the radio to Dr. King’s brilliant (and still relevant!) outline of the tragic historical and moral circumstances of the United States’ involvement in that conflict, I realized how deeply the specific criticisms of that particular time (and the pain of them, more than their call to high American ideals) shaped me, without my ever having been involved in any real sense.
Because of course that tarnished era was ending. By the time we were in Jr. High, Vietnam was too old to be news, too recent to be history, and too painful to be explained to kids.1 America was finding other distractions. “We were the uncalled generation,” says my brother David, born two years after me. “No one asked us to do anything but buy stuff and watch TV. We were left to salvage an identity for ourselves from the rubble of the Sixties’ culture wars.”
For Nicole, things were different. Her Grandpa Joe received a Purple Heart in the African Campaign in World War II, and the memory of his service has been honored and treasured by his descendants. Her father and all his brothers served in the military (one of them as a career chef), including among them time in Vietnam, Korea, and Germany. No one died. In 1967, she was born on a military base in California, like her father before her. She grew up seeing military service as almost a matter of course, the honorable thing for young men to do for their country when they got out of high school. For her, military service was not traumatic, but a connection with honor and duty and family.
Now we have kids of our own. They’re doing choir and Scouting and little league–and their uncles are going to war. Chris, my brother-in-law’s older brother, died in Afghanistan. Phil, who we just invited over for turkey dinner, may spend Thanksgiving in Tajikistan. Yesterday, our young Scouts planted flags on veterans’ graves and walked in a prairie restoration on the University campus; today we paddled kayaks at Brat Fest; and tomorrow Nicole will train for the Chicago Marathon before joining us on the parade route to watch the marching vets & Scouts & marching bands. Maybe catch the Cubs vs Pirates game in the evening.
There is nothing more
American than watching
The Cubs from Baghdad
Here is what Memorial Day means to me today: it means remembering the connections we have to those who are elsewhere, remembering that the small things we enjoy here at home exist in a larger system of past and present service, sacrifice and justice. It means both honoring the work, risk, and loss our soldiers are required to bear, and taking responsibility for our decision to require it of them. It means striving to understand the work & sacrifices of soldiers in partnership with the work & sacrifice of builders, programmers, engineers, teachers, storytellers, musicians, journalists, politicians, peacemakers, and parents. It means recognizing the countries and peoples with whom our soldiers interact, examining carefully the economic, cultural, and spiritual relationships we have with them, and repenting when we see we have been in the wrong. It means listening to all the different voices of our histories, so that the sacrifices we’ve made may be truly honorable, and truly honored.
- At least by our particular parents & school systems. ↩