Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Grieving that Lingers for Life

Memorial Day and Veterans Day are special times of grieving for me. It happens on many levels. First, I grieve the loss of good friends. Second, I grieve the burden borne by their families and loved ones–as well as countless others. It is these endless stirrings that led me years ago to write and produce a 2-hour drama as a tribute and a fundraiser. Preparation for that production led me to Washington, DC, for three days to take photographs on the National Mall, some of which I would use in production.

While I was there over that period, something unexpected happened. By that time, the trilogy of the Vietnam memorials (the Wall and the two bronze sculptures) was in place. It didn’t take long for a person with half an eye to see that something was different about the Vietnam memorials. They spoke of war with an entirely different vocabulary. The glory was gone. The classical allusions to imperial power of Greece and Rome were gone. There were no screaming eagles with bared talons, no chariots, no horses in full gallop with fire-breathing nostrils. Perhaps for the first time, the memorials created to give expression to the experience of Vietnam put a human face on war.

To prove to myself I wasn’t imagining things, I took the better part of a day getting to every other piece of bronze and marble sculpture I could get to on foot and by Metro, including Arlington. The only thing that comes remotely close (that I found) is the Iwo Jima bronze, but its focal point is more the flag than the figures themselves.

Going back to the Wall, then, and to the Women Veterans of Vietnam sculpture, cemented what I had come to see and the role I have played ever since in giving verbal expression to the human experience of war and its costs.

When we speak today of freedom and the human costs of war we are always walking in occupied territory where objectivity and subjectivity have been put into a blender along with the deepest human emotions. The going must be slow and careful.

As each year I seek to give voice on behalf of the Vietnam generation, and now the Iraq/Afghan generation, I find the reality of the human experience, not how we may have idealized it or politicized it, to be the genuine article.

I think of my boyhood friend Wesley who, with less than three weeks to go, gave his life to retrieve the body of a mortally wounded medic he likely did not even know. Wes died for a set of remains and thus became remains himself. His family could only take small comfort that Wes had been so unselfishly loyal to a fellow soldier and his unknown family back in the States, but they could never convince themselves that Wes’ sacrifice had been for the cause of freedom.

And my late friend Jack who had countless human lives on his hands from the ordnance fired from his Cobra had absolutely no way of differentiating “the enemy” from the elders and the children who might have been inside those grass-roofed houses that went up in flames. He struggled with how to think of himself as a moral human

being all his days. Talk of fighting for freedom could enflame him because there was such a chasm between the rhetoric of the time and what he saw and did.

It’s true, of course. Freedom is not free. The price is high, indeed. But for me, we essentially had that fight back in the American Revolution. And for me the Civil War was not primarily about state’s rights or slavery but over the definition of humanity and citizenship–and we didn’t come close to settling it with 600K lives lost. Since then, WWII included, I think America’s wars have been primarily about security.

And security from attack by another nation state or from terrorism by a homicidal ideology is very different from freedom as established by the Constitution and the laws of our nation. Security is maintained by vigilance always and by fighting occasionally when and where we must. But freedom, for me, is maintained only by the full exercise of citizenship by an educated and invovlved people who in their hearts and minds are willing to take the effort and pay the price of doing so. That’s not free either, and it certainly does not happen unless WE do it 24/7/365.

Karen Zacharias is right. The Congress is tasked with having the discussion and making a DECISION about where and when and how and what for to send men and women of the armed forces into harm’s way. But Congress are not our rulers. They are our servants. It comes back to us.

For me on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and other days, the mourning returns not only over the loss of life but more frequently over the loss of discussion and sense of the bigger picture of citizenship here. One of my spiritual mentors once admonished to “watch our language”. I think he’s right. When we use the term “freedom” in place of “security” it tends to close the door to discussion. To question then seems disloyal. When responsible discussion stops, freedom ceases. When our nation’s alliances and interventions in the world in the name of security or freedom are colored by narrow economic interests that control the debate, we become both less secure and less free. The military cannot and will not fix this. It’s not their job.

Only the locus of freedom, “we the people”, can fix this. We do this by using our eyes and our heads and our voices. As the most empowered people the world has ever seen, the opportunities we have are nearly limitless–unless we choose not to excercise them at all. Or unless we think it’s only the job of the military “over there somewhere”.

The British churchman Tarney once observed that “the church that ceases to think ceases to count.” Seems like it’s true for our nation--or any nation. We only get one chance to do that while we're on the sunshine side of one of these.

This has been my attempt to think out loud, not for my benefit but for the benefit of all.

May the next person now come along to help us all think better than me. Amen.