In Flanders Fields
John McCrae, 1915.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
There is a poignant scene in the film The Longest Day in which Richard Burton, playing the wounded British Royal Air Force Flying Officer David Campbell looks at the body of a dead German soldier and says to an American paratrooper who is lost from his unit:
“It’s funny isn’t it. He’s dead, I’m crippled, you’re lost. Suppose it’s always like that. I mean war.”
Back when the movie was filmed in the early 1960s there were still many World War II veterans around and the United States and most Western European nations still had some form of draft or conscription which ensured that most people still had some connection with the military. It’s not like that now. In the United States far these than 1% of the population is serving in the military, and this includes the National Guard and reserves. The numbers are similar throughout Western Europe. Those who have served in combat or even deployed to combat theaters are far fewer. As a result the people of the United States and Western Europe as a whole are so disconnected from military service, not to mention the terrible human cost that is war. As William Tecumseh Sherman said: War is Hell.
I came back a different man from Iraq. It seems that for me with every passing year Memorial Day becomes more of a melancholy observance. It is a weekend and observance that I feel deeply having lost friends in war and served in Iraq as well as Operation Enduring Freedom. It is also a day in which I feel more and more disconnected from the vast majority of my fellow Americans. I don’t know, but just from my observation it seems that for most Americans the weekend serves as not much more than the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer holiday and vacation season.
Now I could be wrong, but it seems to me that for most Americans, the vast majority who have themselves never served a day in uniform and who have no more than a passing relationship with anyone who is either serving in our current wars or has served in any war, that war is at best a spectator sport.
This is an attitude that has been nurtured by our politicians of all parties, political pundits and preachers for decades. As a result there is a grave disconnect between the society at large and the men and women who serve in the military and in our wars.
To be fair I don’t think it is a matter of ordinary people not caring, not that at all. Many do and I am thankful to them. That being said there are many who though they say they support the troops find war to be some sort of sporting event where we send our heroes out to do battle against the enemies of freedom, while making no sacrifices themselves and even call military health care, retirement benefits and disability pensions “entitlement programs” which need to be reigned in. Yes, that is right. Send the volunteers to war and then abandon them. Sadly, with the exception of the end of World War Two, this is always how this nation has treated its veterans and their families.
The real fact of the matter is that the wars that we have fought since World War II have not been national affairs. If they were we would not be continually fighting wars that most people neither understand and which in many if not most cases we would be better off staying out of completely. That being said I am appreciative of those who do things to care for and honor our veterans, honor our fallen and do practical things for the survivors. There are some really wonderful people, many who have never served who do what they can for those who fight and die in or come back forever changed from these misbegotten and unpopular wars.
At the same time there are a lot of what I call War Porn addicts, especially the pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot get enough of war. As a Christian I hate to say that many of the worst of the war porn addicts are the supposedly Christian pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot seem to find enough new wars to get us involved in even as we struggle to deal with what is on our plate already. If you ask me these sons-of-bitches are traitors who do not love the troops, do not love this country and should be forced into the front line so they can see, smell and taste death.
What I find the most offensive are the war mongers and profiteers who have never served. I feel this way about those who did all that they could to avoid serving in the military and those who did the very minimum to satisfy outward appearances of service while avoiding anything difficult, especially deployment to combat zones. Of the latter I can think of five to six currently serving and very outspoken conservative members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that fit the description. I shan’t mention the members of the previous Presidential administration who through their outright lies caused the deaths of nearly 4500 American military personnel in Iraq. I speak about men who in their writings, their appearances on news networks and their think tanks and corporations that do nothing but profit off of war. Some are current or former politicians, others supposedly “academics” and others men who smell a profit in war.
I find such people to be loathsome and wonder how on Memorial Day weekend they can show their faces. But then they are rather shameless. Sometimes their actions make me wonder if the sacrifices made by those who serve are in vain. However, I strive to resist that and pray that our sacrifices will not be in vain. While they profit from war others pay the bill and it has always been this way. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor wrote after World War One in his book War is a Racket:
“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”
Maybe I feel this way because I grew up in a military family where my dad was frequently deployed and served in Vietnam, a place where some of my friends fathers died, and because I have been in the military 32 years between the Army and the Navy. Maybe it is partly because I am a military historian, theologian, priest and chaplain who has seen the horrors of war and the wounds that remain for life in the bodies, minds and spirits of those that fight in them. I cannot speak of how my heart feels when I see young men and women, wounded in war, their lives forever changed bravely struggling to go on even as the war mongers, war profiteers and chicken-hawks profit off of their suffering. As I said before, these people are traitors and if I had my way we would drive them at bayonet point into the arms of the Islamic State so they can taste what war is all about. Maybe then these sons-of-bitches would think twice before sending another young American to die so they might make a profit.
So for me this is a rather melancholy time. A time where I struggle a time when I get so angry. That being said I also echo the words of Civil War Veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who spoke these words in 1895:
“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…. nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”
I honor the fallen, my brothers and sisters who have given the last full measure of devotion in serving this country, those that I know personally or have served with and those who did so before I was every born. Why you might ask?
The reason is simple and I think that Abraham Lincoln said it best as he closed his Gettysburg Address:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”