This used to be Decoration Day, when the survivors of the Grand Army of the Republic tended the graves of their dead. The American version was organized by those damn blue state liberals in Waterloo, New York and (a surprise to me) wasn't a legal federal holiday until Richard Nixon's presidency. I cannot imagine the sadness of those events, with plus or minus 620,000 dead boys and 215,000 of those KIA. I know it's what Lincoln wanted, but I hope we didn't make a mistake in forgiving the South; I know they haven't forgiven us.
And the gravesites in those old cemetaries really did need tending-- the description of the graveyard in "Tom Sawyer" isn't just for dramatic effect. Imagining this helps me comprehend my grandmother's goofy membership in the Spiritualist Church, crystal ball, Indian medium, Bible readings for bereaved black folks and all.
That Good Man Dr. Johnson, who warned us about over-enthusiastic professions of patiotism from scoundrels, also observed that "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea... But, Sir, the profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness." Scott: "But is not courage mechanical, and to be acquired?" Johnson: "Why yes, Sir, in a collective sense. Soldiers consider themselves only as parts of a great machine."
It is a puzzle for biographers that Dashiell Hammett, a lone wolf if ever there was one, cheerfully enlisted in TWO world wars when he was well past the age for enlistment. He had scars on his lungs from tuberculosis (Hammett bribed the doctor to overlook the X-rays) and was fighting fascists in defense of an ungrateful nation that would later jail him for communism. The wars were like a vacation for his soul; always so proud of making his own rules, it was sheer luxury for a man like Hammett to be able to turn his conscience over to strangers for the duration.
That's the dirty little secret of the soldiers who fought against Germany, Imperialist Japan, and North Korea: bad people were hurting other people, and they had to be stopped, plain and simple. Imagine if North Korea's paranoid dreams had not been strangled in its crib; even China must sometimes breathe a sigh of relief. Never mind the projected one million American casualties: the Japanese Rape of the city of Nanking in 1938 ought to be enough for Truman to use the atom bomb without losing a moment's sleep. If you allow for truth being spoken by comedians, I belive the script for "Tootsie" said it best:
"... But the question is in the last analysis: WHAT were they doing for dough? You and me were advancing our little non-Prussian careers. So when all HELL broke loose, and the Germans ran out of SOAP, and figured, "What the hell? Let's cook up Mrs. Greenwald...!" Who the hell do you think STOPPED them?!?"
It is the tragedy of the Vietnam and September 11th generations that they turned over their consciences to scoundrels and then found themselves so badly used. Our friend James enlisted September 12th, expecting to ferrett out Osama bin Laden, and finds himself not combing the mountains of Pakistan, but walking from Bahrain to Baghdad, to Fallujah, to some other place, three tours of combat duty, an eyewitness to atrocities against civilians who were just standing by their mailbox when the American 7th passed through-- I mean, WTC? WTF!
Oddly, I find myself scribbling a few Memorial Day thoughts on how NOT to be a soldier. We were all a family of in-betweeners. I come by it honestly, old enough to register for the Vietnam draft but young enough to not worry about it. (The first American killed in Vietnam, Peter Dewey, was accidentally shot when the Vietnamese mistook him for a Frenchman in 1945, ten years before I was born. That, my friends, was a long fucking war.) My father was rejected for the Second World War because of a leg ruined by a water mocassin bite. He had to walk two miles out of the swamp and it almost killed him in spite of two months in the hopital. He almost made Korea and waited for five weeks at Camp Custer, but the leg is still to this day ruined with phlebitis and distended veins like a road map of the cottonmouth's poison. (They smell like rotten cucumbers before you step on them-- little tip.) My maternal grandfather was, I believe, too young for the First War but too old for the Second, though his exemption might had something to do with only having one testicle due to mumps. He was a gentle soul, and asking him to kill someone for anything other than the immediate defense of his family might have been like expecting a gentle South Sea Islander to act like a Maori. My father's father may have been an in-betweener as well, though he spent some mysterious weeks at Camp Polk during World War One. I sometimes wonder if there wasn't a felony in his past, what with his tendencey to contantly move his household off the two lane blacktop, past the gravel road, down the two track track to a cow path or deer trail to a foot trail and then another mile past that. To find a soldier in my direct bloodline, you'd have to go back to great-grandad Colonel Alphonse Swann Fountain, the Frenchman in the Scots-Irish woodpile, hung for stealing horses for the Confederacy, or from the Confederacy.
I don't believe any of us were pacifists. Those ideas were drummed out of me by several unprovoked attacks to the back of the head, and the classroom scenes in Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" taught me to see pacifism as a fool's dream, and a dangerous one. Add this to my forbears' well-earned skeptism towards demogogury and the "romance" of violence and it means I would have made a really lousy soldier.
My favorite boss Wyatt, himself a veteran, was worried about his teenage sons getting pulled into the Gulf War. I asked him why the military didn't recruit men my age-- at 28 I was nearing the peak of my physical condition, quicker, smarter, mentally tougher, much more prone to apply violence when needed, and less likely to do something stupid than I had been at a scrawny seventeen. "That's just it," he said. "You're too smart at 28, your personality's already formed. They want someone young that they can break down in bootcamp and then build them back up into the kind of soldier that they want. Someone your age, or my age now, if somebody gives us a really stupid order, we're more inclined to say "Fuck You, Sir" instead of "Right Away, Chief." Perhaps so, but it seems to me that the armies made up of a variety of men, from babyfaced virgins to old Nestor, found it easier to adjust to the exigencies of combat and the transition to peacetime.
I would make the lousiest soldier the gods ever put on this earth. For all the violence in my heart, and the knowledge that violence really does solve problems, and the personal ruthlessness to hit someone first and make them stay down, no one would want me in a mass army. I like to pick my own fights. I insist on making my own moral choices.
I am already a huge pain in the ass for the chain of command in civilian life. In a war, the state appoints another human with the authority to tell me who to kill, who to torture, when to die myself... A willing soldier takes the gamble that he will be serving God and not the Devil, and we've seen too much misplaced authority to take that risk without asking some hard questions first. "Whether the populations of the world are to live or die rests with the decisions of Malenkov, Mao Tse-Tung and Mr. John Foster Dulles, not with ordinary mortals like orselves," said Bertand Russell. "If they say, 'die', we shall die. If they say 'live', we shall live." And who the hell died and made them Queen? With a fierce song in my heart, I would follow Joshua Chamberlain down Little Round Top; if Franklin Roosevelt told me to jump in a hole as fertilizer for the Four Freedoms, I might know I was being used, but I would have the comfort that I was being used to build a better world. Now can you imagine being given such orders by the psychotic Stonewall Jackson, or Custer, or Dan Quayle, or George W. Bush, or Donald Rumsfeld, or...? Such is the nature of war fought with modern weapons and corporate personalities.
So let us honor the soldiers that died tragically young, that had their bodies torn apart in horrible ways, in honest love to "place their bodies between the enemy and their beloved homes." Such must be honored with tears and a attempt, with a trembling chin, to be deserving of the sacrifice. If we compare ourselves with animals, who embody our impulses with the purest of motives, then we must love these dead children as we love the baboon soldiers who will throw themselves at a leopard, knowing that at least some of them will be disembowled, but that the leopard will be driven off and the troop will be saved. A female meerkat sentry, smaller than my shoe, stood her ground against a jackal and was fatally wounded. She was dying, but when the troop moved on, they all groomed and nursed and comforted her, waited in the open for her to catch up at terrible risk to themselves, stayed by her side while she rested, stood at attention when she finally stood, moved three steps away from the comfort of her pack, and finally died.
But let us also, in the name of truth, say a darker prayer for the millions who lie here because they unthinkingly obeyed a monstrous order from a Himmler or a William Calley or a Quantrill. Old men will make war, and young men will too eagerly jump at the chance, and I'm not sure who most needs to be prayed out of Hell.