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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterns' Day: A lesson from my father

I support our troops, but not the War in Iraq or the War in Afghanistan.

That's not an oxymoron. Neither is it unpatriotic.

I love this country. I am as patriotic as the most patriotic person, but I love this country enough that I am against war - especially these two.

I love this county, I support our troops and I do not support the War, but I am not a pacifist. That takes real courage - courage I confess I have searched for but have not yet found.

I fear I am too much of a coward to be a true pacifist.

So, I have settled for this peace: I think the most patriotic thing we can do is to do everything we can to end these wars that are not ours and bring our young men and women home.

In many ways, these two wars feel like Viet Nam all over again. Even my father - who fought on the Pacific Front in WWII, and was very proud to have been decorated with the Purple Heart - was very much against the Viet Nam War.

One year, when I was about 9 or 10 years old, Veteran's Day fell on a week end. We left shortly after he had marched in the local Annual Veteran's Day Parade and traveled to a Military Cemetery outside of Boston to visit the grave of one of his buddies who had died.

After we had laid a small bouquet of poppies near the headstone, my father said to me, "Look around. Look at the gravestones. What do you see that's the same?"

I dutifully did as my father said, walking slowly among the markers on the graves, fingering the cool marble stone and listening to the dry leaves crackle as they were blown across barren field by the brisk November wind.

"Dad," I said, finally, "Everyone of these stones has PFC before the name. What does PFC stand for?"

My father smiled briefly, proud of his daughter's correct observation. His smile was suddenly clouded - the way the sun goes in and out in the November sky.

"Private first class," he said sadly.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"They are the youngest soldiers - the newest soldiers - the ones with the least experience in war."

"Look around," my father continued after I considered his words. "You won't see too many graves marked 'Captain' or 'Lieutenant' or 'Colonel'. Oh, there are some, but most of the graves here are the PFC's."

"Like your friend?" I asked.

"Like me, too," he said.

He grew very quiet and said, "We were very young. Too young. We were young warriors, fearless young turks, ready, we thought, to die for our country. But, when death came to our friends, we were never ready. But, we had to keep going. We had to keep going . . ."

He took a few drags from his Lucky Strike and his eyes trailed off over the tops of the gravestones to a long ago battle in a country far, far away.

"War is a terrible thing," he said almost whispering his words over the rows of graves that held the bodies of young PFCs.

I looked at my father's face, lined with sorrow and pain and suddenly, it all came clear. In that moment, I understood the terrible nightmares that woke us up in the middle of the night - a sound so horrible and so loud as to wake the dead.

I realized, then, that it must have been the dead that had awakened him.

Suddenly, I understood his frustration and anger when he would 'get an attack of The Malaria', as he called it - which brought him right back to a place and time he'd much sooner forget and never have to relive ever again.

I couldn't possibly have understood - still can't possibly understand - the full cost of war, but I knew he had paid - and was continuing to pay - a heavy price for playing his part in The War that was supposed to have ended all wars. But didn't.

"War," he said again, "is a terrible thing."

He said it as fact and he said it as prayer.

I understood then, that some may have fought for freedom for all, but all may not ever again be fully free.

Pray for our Veterans on their Day.

Pray for peace in our time - and their's.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Oh, my 'Lizbeth. I am wiping tears.

God, I miss that generation, the generation of your dad and my grandpa.

They saw awful things in war and they came home and became insurance salesmen and delivery route men and city cops and firemen. Some of the women were Army and Navy nurses, who saw the carnage of war even more up close and personal, yet behind the lines, and they came home after the war and became just plain ol' nurses. And women like my grandmother worked in war plants and did men's work, plain and simple, of that era, and just went back home to be housewives when the men mustered out and came home.

Nobody knew about PTSD back then so a lot of them drank too much and took too many tranqulizers and again, but most of them just went on living their lives, rearing their families, going to work.

God, I miss them. They lived hardscrabble Depression-era lives and went to war and came home and bought houses and went to college on the GI bill. And even in our darkest financial hours in my family, my grandparents just shrugged and said, "We'll get through this somehow."

In this time of economic meltdown, I miss them even more. I know what they would do. They would drag out the fruit jars from the cellar and can food, they would mend clothes instead of buying, they would make things last another year, and they wouldn't buy anything they couldn't buy with cash. I look at people now and think: "My God. Some of these people are clueless on how to get by. My grandparents would give them a big dose of it, for sure!"

When I was looking at my quarterly retirement plan statement, and gagging on how much it had lost, I could feel my grandparents leaning over my shoulder, from where light perpetual shines on them, saying, "Oh, shut up. You aren't hurting. That's just paper money. Even if you were hurting, you know what to do. You'd get through this somehow. Now in the Depression...."

God, I miss them!

Anonymous said...

My dad, too, Elizabeth. He wasn't able to articulate it as well as yours, but...well, I've grown to love him for what he did in the Pacific theater (Navy). He and I always were on "different wave lengths", but somehow, God bless him, he let me know that he respects me (dad's are like that in some miraculous way).

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Me too, Kirke. They were of another breed.

I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for the son of a vet to be "on a different wave length." Or, how hard it must have been for your Dad.

We are, I think, of another breed.

VTcrone said...

One of my great uncles died in France in WWI; my father, 2 uncles, a godfather, my father-in-law and mother-in-law (all now gone) were veterans of WWII; my husband, brother, and cousin-in-law are all Viet Nam vets and my niece's half brother,from her mom's 2nd marriage, is currently serving in Iraq.

Bless them all!

Anonymous said...

This is top drawer. Thoroughly enjoyed it and will look forward to reading more in the future.

The comment quotes are super, nothing like getting it out there, up front and first.

Good job.

Don Smith

Anonymous said...

The next time you are on my site, click on the Something's Happening Video ... You will be somewhat surprised, same song, but totally different.


JCF said...

I'm lucky: my WWII dad is still in the land of the living (and is doing pretty well, even since my mom died last year).

Gotta go make my flight reservations, to go see Da Ol' Guy for Christmas...

Jim said...

I grew up with parents from that generation, with buddies whose dads had not come back from places like Normandy. They were amazing people. Dad flew anti-submarine patrols off the Atlantic seaboard, mom worked for the "Weather bureau" as it was known then. They got married on New Years eve 1943 because he was they could get 3 whole days together! I was born in 1946 just as things ended.

When I was a boy scout, our scoutmaster was a former Marine. He would not talk about war or combat, and after I read about the island hoping in the Pacific I understood why.

When he noticed I was the kid with glasses, athsma and books and the bully's target, he talked to dad and then taught me unarmed combat. He also made it abundantly clear what would happen if I ever started a fight. I never have. But I have never been afraid since then.

They were an amazing generation. Now the question -- can we live up to them? I don't see torturing prisoners as living up to them. I don't see invading Iraq as living up to them, although the conduct of our troops there is another matter. They have done us prouder than we deserve.

I am inclined to think the president elect is on to something when he says get out of Iraq and complete the mission in Afghanistan. But then, I am so old that women will get drafted before I see combat. So I am prepared to be told I am wrong.

Just my thoughts.

Thanks for a very good post and the memories recalled.


johnieb said...

Elizabeth et al.,

I feel honored by true patriotism, which your post eloquently exhibits and elicits from others. OTOH, I avoid most of what passes for "patriotism" in public discourse, especially from Chickenhawk neocons; it only pisses me off.

I gotta go to VA and pick up some meds--Zolpidem, "Kirkie".

VTcrone said...

The above link is to the "Something's Happening" video that Don Smith (ldsrr91)referred to in his post. Very powerful, especially for those of us who were so impacted by 9/11.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, I did see the 9/11 version of the Buffalo Springfield classic. It's a real tear jerker.

Unknown said...

Someone left a link to your blog at M&H and I had to check this place out.

Vets understand the difference between supporting the troops and being a SUV driving Magnet Wearing Chicken Hawk.

So dont sweat that small stuff. You shouldnt have to explain why one is mutually exclusive from the other {Vets/Military members vs Moronic Foreign Policy and War Mongoring for Oil} though I understand that temptation. In today's Anti-Intellectual climate, there are plenty of people who never figured these things out.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for stopping by, SEC. I guess I'll never stop hearing my father screaming himself awake from a sound sleep.

Unknown said...

No probably not. Once you have lived with someone who has PTSD, there aint no going back, for you or them.

A lot of Military Vets, both those in Combat and those who didnt see Combat develope PTSD for a lot of different reasons.

The military is a risky career.

Kirk Petersen said...

Elizabeth, may God bless your father, I am grateful for his service and sacrifice. I also recognize you for your service to the Church and the LGBT community, and I do not in any way question your patriotism or the integrity of your beliefs. But I feel moved to take issue with some of the things you've said in this post.

I do not think your resistance to pacifism signals that you are a coward. Rather, it signals that you are a responsible member of society. Pacifism is a morally bankrupt ideology. To be a doctrinaire pacifist is to reject any responsibility for the security of your nation and loved ones. The clearest distillation of this for me is in the quotation I drew from for the title of my own blog -- "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." (Edmund Burke apparently did not actually say this, so I've felt free to modernize the language.)

At a less metaphysical level, I think your post conflates three very different wars. The distinctions between Vietnam and the current wars are far greater than any similarities. To begin with, by toppling two evil regimes the U.S. has already achieved far more in both Iraq and Afghanistan than it ever did in Vietnam, and with far fewer casualties.

The Iraq war has been dreadfully mismanaged, and President Bush has a lot to answer for in that regard. Personally, I continue to support the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but I certainly acknowledge that a substantive case can be made that it was a mistake.

What I don't understand is how -- short of adopting the pacifism you reject -- you can possibly link Vietnam and Afghanistan together.

America had a choice about whether to go back into Iraq, and we can debate whether the right choice was made. But there was no choice with Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a straightforward retaliation for a grievous act of war, and of 535 members in both houses of Congress, precisely one voted against using force in Afghanistan. President Gore, President Kerry, President Obama -- I have no doubt that all of them would have done Afghanistan. An individual can choose to follow literally Jesus's injunction to turn the other cheek. A country cannot.

Your father was right -- war is a terrible thing. But sometimes the alternative is worse.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirk - I think words, like colors, carry nuance of meaning. As some one who wears black a lot, I can tell you that sometimes the variance in shade is annoying. Words are like that, too, sometimes.

From my perspective, pacifism is not "a morally bankrupt ideology". The way I read the life of Jesus, I would say that he was a pacifist. You can disagree with that, and that's fine, but I hardly think pacifism is "to reject any responsibility for the security of your nation and loved ones." Neither is it not doing anything.

I think you have to take the long view on this, Kirk. Back up and look at the whole picture.

From my perspective, pacifism is the antidote to the unbridled violence that also lives in the hearts of many of God's creatures.

We have in the human heart the impulse for both monstrous evil and divine good. I think a true pacifist like Jesus and those like Gandhi, MLK, etc. who follow him can bring about non-violent transformation in the world.

I wish I had that kind of courage.

War is a terrible thing, and, I believe, the pacifist offers us alternatives that are workable and achievable.

Thanks for stopping by and for your comments, Kirk. I apologize again for having lost your first post and appreciate your willingness to post it again.

Kirk Petersen said...

Mother Kaeton, was the war your father fought in a justifiable war? I certainly believe that it was. Gandhi, whom you reference approvingly, felt otherwise.

In 1946, after the full horrors of the Holocaust were known, Gandhi said:

"Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany... As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions."

Morally bankrupt. I just went Googling for that phrase, because I knew I didn't originate it. The earliest reference I can find in connection with pacifism is a 1993 movie, "Romeo is Bleeding," in which a character says:

"Mind you, I have no respect for pacifism. It's a morally bankrupt belief. Pacifists believe that they have the right not to kill, but others always die in defence of that right."

Works for me. My target is doctrinaire pacifism -- I certainly think war is to be avoided if diplomacy can be effective. And Jesus at the very least leans pacifist, I'll give you that -- but I'm not convinced he would condemn the war against Hitler.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Thanks so much for your recent comment. I appreciate your energy on this.

Here's my dilemma: It's Saturday night. I have Big Church in the morning and a few pastoral calls to make in the afternoon. I'm afraid my energy just isn't passionate enough on this issue to open a new thread. But, why don't you start one on yourBlog and I'll come by to visit.

I must tell you that I tend to walk away from discussion about abortion when people start using words like, "Murder." So, too, do I walk away from discussion about pacifism when people use terms like "morally bankrupt."

To my mind, discussion isn't possible. You've made up your mind already and have gone past that decision to judgment - harsh judgment. The conversation can only go down hill from there. It's already skirted past the rule on theinternet by bringing in Hitler.

BTW, Gandhi didn't say 'fight back' - he never would. What he said, according to your quote, is that the Jews ought to have thrown themselves into the sea rather than submit to the butcher's knife.

See what I mean? You are already hearing what you want to hear. So, God's peace - in whatever way you understand that, Kirk. I'll stop by to visit. I hope you return to myblog, too. While we disagree, I appreciate your passion.

Kirk Petersen said...

I'll do that, and I'll look to keep my passion from running away with me.

BTW, there is a corollary to the Hitler-on-the-internet rule, to the effect that it's permissible to reference Hitler if you're actually talking about that period in history.

Blessings to you and your Parish from your neighbor in Maplewood, and may you also know God's peace.

Proud Soldier said...

War is a terrible thing, I have been twice, I KNOW. It is nice to wish for peace. Growing up my father all way's said to me, "never ever start a fight, but if you have to, then you be the one to end it". If we don't take care of the issues at hand and take care of our business. If we let individuals with an ideology that they want everyone to be a part of THEIR religion and impose THEIR way of life on us, then what is the cost of our freedom? They started this fight, we must finish it. Don't be opposed to something they started. If you are then all my buddies that have died, all the innocent that died in 9-11, and all of our children that look up to us to protect them and keep individuals from blowing up buildings and such are the ones whose lives are in jeopardy. Our freedom is more than just fighting these two wars. It is not only our freedom but the freedom of our children and their children. I say lets not let our children down.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Old Soldier. God Bless you.