Last night, PBS televised the national Memorial Day Concert/Celebration from Washington, D.C. It’s an annual event and is a deeply moving tribute to those who serve in our armed forces. I watched the show for a few minutes after Sunday dinner with my parents, watching with one person who served in those armed forces: my father, an infantry veteran of World War II.
Those of you who know my father know what a big, tough guy he’s always been. At the peak of his power, he was a solid 6-foot-2, 200-pound man with broad shoulders and a sheer size and force of will that, even though I’m physically bigger than he was, I never had and never will.
You may also know that, deep down, my father is a marshmallow: he cries whenever some young athlete wins an Olympic medal and his voice breaks at the sight of sappy commercials. He especially chokes up at any news involving our troops — past or present — so it’s not surprising that the made-for-TV event in Washington, D.C., got to him so deeply. And it’s at times like those, when I watch this formerly fierce, powerful man break down, that I realize where my hippie, anti-war sentiment comes from.
And that realization happens more often than just the final Monday in May each year. Unlike many Americans, my father observes not just Memorial Day but also Veteran’s Day (which was Armistice Day to his father, who’d served in World War I) in the fall; the anniversary of D-Day, and V-E and V-J Days in the summer; and other dates that don’t get mentioned in the news: the day he shipped out from the East Coast for Europe, the day he and his platoon crossed the Rhine, the night around Christmas 1944 when he and a few mates ran into a German patrol and both groups turned and walked away, and other such dates that mark those days in the Ardennes — days he went through as a 20-year-old.
Twenty years old. I can’t comprehend going through something like at any age, let alone as someone just out of his teens. Whenever I try to imagine those times — and I do, often, in my quest to understand my father just a little bit better — I shudder. I physically shudder. Mentally, well, let’s just say it’s a frightening place to be, and I don’t know what it was really like. I like to think I could have withstood such horror as well as my father did, but I highly doubt it. And it’s when I come to such realizations that I get angry. Not at myself and certainly not at my father, but at a society that glorifies war and combat so easily and lightly.
Rather than listen to Selma Blair tearfully recite the story of a young father whose death in Afghanistan left his two young children fatherless and his young bride a widow, I want to hear that we really do support our troops — so much so that we’re bringing them home. Rather than hear Joe Mantegna tell us that the American Idol finalist who sang the national anthem has a father stationed in Singapore who’s so proud of her, I want to hear that he’s actually stationed in Seattle…or some other place here on this continent where he’s closer to his loved ones and here to protect our country, not the interests of some far-flung corporate tax haven. Rather than hear about the eleventh year of hell our troops in Afghanistan are entering, I want to hear that they’re being brought home, and that the chicken-hawks of both political parties who sent and keep them there aren’t doing so just to prop up the bottom lines of Lockheed-Martin and other military-industrial complex corporations.
Yes, I’m angry. Watching what my father goes through on all of these dates of infamy is painful for me, and they must be infinitely more painful for him. Not only can I not imagine what it was like to be there on the front in 1944, I can’t imagine what it’s like to carry that with you every single day of your life since.
So when I see my father break down as he did last night, in a lot of ways I wonder if he isn’t still in the Ardennes, alongside Red Lynch and the other two guys — all three now gone — in his band of brothers.
Certainly, as my father has gotten older, the memory of those days has moved more to the forefront of his mind and soul than probably any other images he carries — more than the sad memories of the deaths of a wife or a son or other family members, more than the joyous present of a multi-generational family living a broad range of lives, and more than the hopeful thought of the future embodied by four granddaughters. And I find that heartbreakingly tragic.
Yes, my father is proud of his service in World War II, as well he should be. But when I see him breaking down over the plight of others who have shared his experiences, I wonder if he didn’t pay too high a price. And I want us, as a society, to stop paying that price. For my father’s sake. For the sake of all servicemen and women. And for the sake of all the rest of us who know and love them.