Friday, May 24, 2013

A Pacifist Memorial Day

For most of us, Memorial Day is a joyous occasion. We may think of idyllic, lazy summer days of childhood, whole months away from school. Our greatest concern might well be the inevitable traffic jams created when large groups of people head for the same destination at the same time. This holiday is intended to commemorate the service and bravery of those Americans who have served in combat. My own religious convictions speak against war. Friends are, as we are taught, to live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars. It forms the basis of the Peace Testimony.

Five years after its original airing, I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary about World War II. It was a particularly memorable experience for me because I saw the stories of my grandparents and great-uncles illustrated by miles of newsreel footage, shaky handheld cameras set up at the front, and succinct commentary. The final conclusion of that series is that the Second World War was a just conflict. The atrocities inflicted and experienced, ghastly as they were, could not have been avoided. While I disagree, I do not let theology blind me to the human realities, especially those inherent in my own family.

My mother's mother had, in many ways, a tragic life. She lost both parents, for all intents and purposes, before she was even a teenager. Her father died unexpectedly when she was ten. Her mother, overburdened by raising four children by herself in the middle of the Depression, was then lost to insanity. My great-grandmother spent the rest of her life in an lunatic asylum. My maternal grandmother was largely raised by three older brothers, each of which dutifully served in combat once the war began.

One served in the European theater. A member of the Army Corps of Engineers, he was one of the first soldiers to come ashore on D-Day. Another hopped from island to island in the Pacific, fighting the Japanese tooth and nail. Beyond my blood relatives, I came to know others who had taken part. A family friend served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier, dodging Japanese kamikaze attacks. An older man I befriended had a front row seat to the horrors of the surprise German counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge. The experience affected him profoundly, as was the case for many American soldiers. He never returned to Europe again, even in peacetime, even as a tourist.

I see now why these servicemen often avoided speaking about their wartime experiences. The trauma, violent visuals, and resulting combined emotional impact drove some men mad. It led others to find their own means of coping with the constant fear of death. Their memories and recollections challenge me to remove the occasion for all war in my own time. I do not expect to find easy solutions to a practice as old as humanity itself. We have, gradually, embraced more civilized ways of resolving conflicts, and in some ways pushed away from the barbarism and carnage of a different epoch.

My dreams and aspirations are yet incomplete. In this country, we know of war now in a very different context. American casualties in recent wars have been minimal compared to those of especially bloody conflicts like World War II. Technology has taken over for boots on the ground, in an effort to minimize casualties. Yet, in many countries across the world, the brutality and slaughter persists, as does the lust for blood revenge. I cannot reconcile within myself that this must be somehow necessary, a means of population control or a consequence of irreconcilable differences.

At times, I admit I do feel disappointed and discouraged. Every time war is declared, pacifist faith groups protest heartily, with words and often out in the streets as part of peace vigils. We are ignored once again, completely marginalized when war fever grips the country once more, our opinion a minority view. I try to take the long view, believing that diplomacy will eventually overtake armed struggle as a means of resolving differences. I concede I may not see it in my lifetime, but I look back across the centuries, and that perspective gives me comfort.  

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