Written on: June 5, 2017
Every year, I watch the Memorial Day Concert from Washington D.C. which honors all those who have served our country in armed services. The program includes music, pageantry, speeches, and, most moving of all, tributes by actors and actresses to men and women who have died in the service of our country or come home seriously injured in mind and body from engagement in war.
Every year, I wonder why I watch this program. It is emotionally draining to hear the stories, to see the “wounded warriors,” to listen to songs like “You Lift Me Up” and “Wind beneath My Wings” in the context of the tragic history of men and women whose lives were turned upside down by injuries sustained in battle.
I was born the year before we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. I have no recollection of D-Day or V-Day. Though my uncles were drafted, my father was not in the war nor was my mother part of the “war effort”. I do remember being terrified as a young child of the possibility of someone I loved being secretly a communist – so pervasive was the fearful atmosphere of those post-war days – McCarthyism, “I Led Three Lives,” and the prayer after Mass which we said for years: “Savior of the world, save Russia”. Whether I understood any connection between our involvement in Korea or Viet Nam with the same campaign against communism, I do not know.
What I do know is that I am ambivalent about the armed services and the glorifying of battle in the name of freedom and democracy. I am ambivalent about war in general and about the nearly 7000 men and women who have been killed in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, each time we learn of atrocities being rained down on women and children and men in a country distant from our own, I am ambivalent all over. Should we intervene? Can killing people on the “other side” be justified? And in this new technologically sophisticated world, is it alright to kill others with drones, since at least none of “my side” will be putting their lives at risk? What is my faith perspective?
I watched the concert, heard the stories, listened to the music, saw the uniforms, but also the maimed, the broken-hearted, the grieving. And I wondered if we could ever stop glorifying battle and pretending that somehow the “other side” is populated with people unlike ourselves. Wendell Berry has a wonderful poem entitled “To a Siberian Woodsman“. In it, a man sees a picture in a magazine and imagines the life of the family in the photo. He ends the poem with these verses:
Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
that I should desire the burning of your house or the
destruction of your children?
Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
rivers, and the silence of the birds?
Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?
Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
these pictures of your face?
Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
you in the forest?
And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
gladly talk and visit and work with me.
‘I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
carefully as they hold to it.
I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
nor has the elm bowed before any monuments or sworn the oath of allegiance.
They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.
In the thought of you I imagine myself free of the weapons and
the official hates that I have borne on my back like a hump,
and in the thought of myself I imagine you free of weapons and
so that if we should meet we would not go by each other
looking at the ground like slaves sullen under their burdens,
but would stand clear in the gaze of each other.
There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence beside the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.
Ought we to intervene further in Syria? What should we do or not do in Yemen? Can we ever extricate ourselves from Afghanistan and Iraq and when we do, what will be our legacy? I am ambivalent about all these questions. My faith tradition teaches about a “just” war, and friends of other faith traditions teach peacemaking and nonviolence. What do you believe?
Sister Eileen White, GNSH is a frequent contributor to From a Faith Perspective in the Bucks County Courier Times. This article was published on June 2, 2017 and is reprinted here with the permission of the editors.