On Memorial Day
There also are hundreds of thousands of betrayed warriors fighting in the Middle East right now--women and men fighting a war which amounts to little more than a confused government's attempt to look strong in the wake of 9/11's horrors and failures, a family vendetta, and a national refusal to reduce our unsustainable dependence on petroleum. The soldiers who enlist to protect our country do so with the understanding that they won't be asked to risk their lives for a cause unworthy of the sacrifice, but the current administration has reneged on that contract.
To that end, I'm suggesting another piece by British poet Wilfred Owen, who recorded the futilities, terrors, and injustices of World War I and died in battle a week before the conflict ended in 1918.
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
I also want to offer a particularly appropriate passage about war, wounds, and memory from Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain:
What is remembered in the body is well remembered; the bodies of massive numbers of participants are deeply altered; those new alterations are carried forward into peace. So, for example, the history of the United States participation in numerous twentieth-century wars may be quietly displayed across the surviving generations of any American family--a grandfather whose distorted feet permanently memorialize the location and landing site of a piece of shrapnel in France, the feet to which there will always cling the narration of a difficult walk over fields of corn stubble; a father whose heart became an unreliable pennywhistle because of the rheumatic fever that swept through an army training camp in 1942, at once exempting him from combat and making him lethally vulnerable to the Asian flu that would kill him several decades later; a cousin whose damaged hip and permanent limp announce in each step the inflection of the word "Vietnam," and along with the injuries of thousands of his peers assures that whether or not it is verbally memorialized, the record of war survives in the bodies, both alive and buried, of the people who were hurt there.
Elsewhere, Scarry writes eloquently about war casualties as both symbolic and open to a host of political interpretations. I have no doubt that our President and his supporters will make speeches tomorrow which claim that the tens of thousands of American casualties symbolize a fight for freedom and justice. Those who support this war also will make arguments about hundreds of thousands of Iraqui casualties as either the regrettable, but necessary, outcome of a fight to liberate a people oppressed by a murderous dictator or an appropriate punishment for those who would resist the clarion call of liberty and a movement away from religious fanaticism.
In the wake of unethical and often illegal wartime actions undertaken by an increasingly dictatorial and theocratic American government--the "embedding" of our national media; the WMD hoax; the enactment of the so-called Patriot Act; admitted government wiretapping of private citizens; and the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere--I hope an increasing number of us are beginning to resist such characterizations of the suffering this war has caused. I also hope that more of us will begin to resist the threats the Bush administration poses to human rights around the world and to our rights as American citizens here at home.
Tomorrow, I plan to go up to the local veterans' cemetery, find the least honored grave in sight, and leave a token of my respect. Today, I signed the Not in Our Name statement of conscience.
There is more than one way to be loyal. To my mind, the loyalty which believes that a beloved person, institution, or country can and should live up to its ideals and promises--and which does not let failures to do that go unremarked--is by far the best.