Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Musings

I do love walking the dog on a holiday morn. The hustle and bustle of usual days is absent and one can actually hear the crackle of branches as the squirrels dart from tree to tree in the nearby woods. The honks of geese flying overhead signal that nature is proceeding naturally. The cardinal pair crossing back and forth along my path add a bright note to the walk. The male, with his scarlet plumage leads the way, as his less flamboyantly feathered mate follows. In the distance, a cacophony of inside dogs bark as we near, heralding our presence -- no longer a silent trek.

But solitude and semi-silence give way to thoughts of why we celebrate this day. When I was a child, my family tradition of Memorial Day was one spent traveling to several cemeteries. First we cleared the graves of the debris from the winter, then planted flowers or placed a bouquet in a vase inserted in the ground. And we remembered the grandparent, aunt, uncle or sibling who had died. We also visited the part of our local cemetery set aside for the veterans of our community. All had identical headstones white marble without adornment, perhaps a cross or a star, and the name, rank, service identity and dates of birth and death and maybe a place of death. Sometimes a veterans group would have placed a small flag next to the headstone. But here we remembered those who served our country -- and when I was growing up most did serve. Many families had Gold Star mothers denoting a son who had died. In those days the active duty fighting force was all male.

The unpopularity of the Vietnam war brought an eventual end to the draft, but all young men today are still required to register for selective service. (With greater equality mandated for women -- will their registration be required next?) All three of my brothers served in the military during the 60s and 70s -- one was stationed in Vietnam. But even though the draft was supposed to be service by all, some managed to get deferments such as Dick Cheney -- who later seemed to have few doubts about sending a new generation to war. Bill Clinton, who also escaped the draft, seemed more reluctant toward foreign involvement. Today -- with an all volunteer army -- we do not see the Gold Stars in the windows or share the mourning of neighbors. We, as a nation, are mostly insulated from the daily cost of lives lost or soldiers wounded in the war. The war as fought on TV is mostly sterilized and not in the raw footage we saw from Vietnam which served to influence public opinion. Embedded reporters are seldom seen to report critically of their experiences.

The Washington Post regularly carries photos of the fallen. Their serious official photos give few hints of who these men and women -- mostly all young -- really are. We know little of their families, their dreams and aspirations, their laughs and sorrows, their wishes never to be realized. We are told they are serving to preserve the American dream, to keep us and ours safe and able to enjoy freedom. The Post also carries news items about the funerals at Arlington cemetery and shows little children standing with a young mother, too soon draped in black, holding the folded flag of honor.

This Memorial Day the Post also told the story of a recent vet who had lost both legs and an arm and who was being honored in his Massachusetts home town with a parade in his name. I grew up in such a town and know the sentiments that the people share in this and other towns across the country. After Vietnam, when people erroneously blamed the returning veterans for the mistakes of their elected officials, many said never again and today go out of their way to thank a veteran. The motorcyclists who come to Washington from across this country each Memorial Day and participate in Rolling Thunder are also paying a public tribute.

President Obama spoke this week about America not wanting to be a nation engaged in endless war. War should not define us as a people. For a country which claims to embrace the peacemaker, we have done little to demonstrate this. As Republican Senators McCain and Graham beat the drums for more action in the Middle East, they are not taking the pulse of the people. We are weary of wars. Our troops have been deployed again and again over the last ten years. We have left Iraq. We are leaving Afghanistan it is time for respite for our nation and our troops who have served so valiantly. Yes we do need a military as there are bad people in the world, but how much military is enough? Couldn't we decrease the Pentagon budget, stop building our military machines in all 50 states, so no one will fight against them and come up with a rational assessment of needs, wants and a real budget?

It is time we put the Defense budget on a diet and made it balance out. There is a great bumper sticker out there about making the Pentagon hold bake sales while our communities receive adequate funds . . . good thought but not realistic. However monies spent on defense are dollars not being spent to improve our social safety net, repair our infrastructure, bring people out of poverty and plan for the future, so as a nation, we are poorer as a result of war. Let those who want war go and fight -- leave their comfy Senate offices and tolerate some deprivation in the desert. (I know Senator McCain served his duty and was in a prison camp, but that should have taught him to use war as a last resort -- not the first.)

Perhaps we should give medals to the peace makers and not just to generals who serve their time and earn their stars. World War l began almost 100 years ago, and we have had a century of war. Let's work to make the next century one of peace. Iraq was the first war we entered without provocation. Let it also be the last. If we do not see ourselves as war mongers but rather as a country that stands on a world stage as a leader and an example of how freedom and democracy should work, then we must make our actions match our words.

Peace to all on this Memorial Day.