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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

(I wrote this column last year for Memorial Day. This morning we will go again to the old graveyard and my daughter will play in the high school band. We will circle the tombstones dropping flowers. Unlike last year, the temperature is in the fifties this morning, but everything else is much the same. Have a good day)

We went down to the old graveyard with our flowers for the soldiers and sailors buried there. There was a brass band, a canon, and a rifle salute, a hundred or so Penns Valley folks, neighbors and friends, many toddlers and babies in slings, great grandparents, teenagers with tattoos, speeches read under the hot sun, a prayer, and the trooping among the gravestones dropping flowers we had picked that morning from our gardens.
For someone like me of the Vietnam generation, it was hard to keep my head on straight. We did not believe in war. We thought – some of us thought – that it was all a terrible waste. We did not believe in honor and sacrifice, the words that were echoing like the snare drum across the sacred ground. We did not believe in sacred either.
That morning while we waited to enter the cemetery, I talked with a veteran of the last good war, one who had been through the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. It was like talking to history. He seemed too young to have walked out of the pages of that long ago story and too gentle and unassuming to have gone through both the fire of D Day and the ice of the Ardennes forest.
My own father, veteran of WWII, of Korea, of Vietnam, lies a thousand miles away in a cemetery in south Florida. I have not been there in twenty years, yet I think of him this brutal, heat-cracked morning, as I stand with a small flag in my hand among the weathered stones. I was in high school when he came back from Vietnam, looking ten years older than when he left home. Don’t go there if you can help it, he told me. And I didn’t.
Paul Fussell died this past weekend and I read his obituary on Memorial Day. Fussell was a veteran of WWII, and his breakthrough book was The Great War and Modern Memory, about World War I. Often called the Great War, mostly because it was such a great waste of youth and life, World War I destroyed 19th century Europe and laid the groundwork for the horrors of the next hundred years, not just communism and fascism, the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, but also the Cold War and Vietnam and even Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Paul Fussell who said of the Great War, “Eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.” That war, like our Civil War, began with parades and flowers and ended with widows and beggars on the streets.
Every war is a failure in some sense, even those that seemed good and just at the time, like World War II. Fussell knew it, and I think my father knew it, too. Yet we send our youth, generation after generation, into the ice and fire. I stood in the sun, my head all awhirl, the bugle blew taps, and the rifles and the canon fired, startling the birds. Honor the sacrifice, but forget the glory.

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