Saturday, November 11, 2006

Have you forgotten yet?

Before 1954, Veteran's Day was known as Armistice Day, "November 11 is the anniversary of the Armistice which was signed in the Forest of Compiegne by the Allies and the Germans in 1918, ending World War I, after four years of conflict."

In November of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson issued his Armistice Day proclamation. The last paragraph set the tone for future observances:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation.

In 1938, officially, it became a nationally recognized day.

In 1954, President Eisenhower renamed it Veteran's Day in honor and rembrance of all servicemen.

(Source: Veteran's Day)

I think it's important to remember. I think it is important to honor people who serve us, even if it is in a conflict we don't support. I don't support.

And so, today, I'll do that, in my own way.

In 1920 Siegfried Sassoon wrote Aftermath, a poem to keep fresh the horror and honor he experienced during the first world war.

It's moving, disturbing. Chastising. Entreating.

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same-and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads-those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1920

Each time a new war, a new conflict begins and continues, I think, "We have forgotten."

We've forgotten:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same-and War's a bloody game...

We have forgotten the past. We have forgotten just how bloody---and costly---war is. We have forgotten what we ask of our fellow citizens when we ask them to go to war.

We have forgotten what we ask of those left behind, waiting, and then, standing bravely by what is left, what comes home...or in shame and horror, finding not enough within ourselves to live feeling a daily grief for what has been lost:

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads-those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Instead, we stick in anger, stuck in the fury and feeling of deserved retribution after the attack.

How easy it is for us, able live as we usually do. Able to buy the groceries we always have, worry about soccer games and school spelling tests, whether the apples are good this year, what sort of latte to buy at the coffee shop. Able to walk to our cars with our children, simply worrying about the rain falling and getting wet versus anxiety about falling shrapnel or raining bullets.

I think about it. Do you?

We reared up in rage when we got a pain point: high gas prices.

But what about people fighting in the war zone? What about people living in it? Dying in it? Is there outrage over that?

Is it simply easier to worry about gas prices than about the cost of humanity to keep those prices lower, and other things, other ways of life, ways of our lives, that people fight to protect? Fighting to protect the life we expect, or more, the life so many believe they deserve?

After Vietnam, after the Gulf War, I stopped and wondered, "Is it all going to happen again?"

And yes, yes it will because so many say it is the only way...and the cost is necessary collateral. People, they say, will pay it willingly, to keep our way of life safe.

I am humbled to think that my ability to sit at my computer, in my climate controlled house, on a sunny day, with my children happily playing nearby is worth a human life, or a human soul.

I remember one time, as a young child, asking my mother why my paternal grandfather had no teeth. I didn't know what I had asked wrong, but I could tell by the adult reactions around me it was more than a social gaffe of observing an imperfection in appearance.

Later, alone, she told me he had lost them in The War.

Almost anything to do with The War was whispered, hushed, never mentioned. At the time, the war usually discussed was Vietnam, but I knew she meant a different war, the big one, before I was born.

For my grandfather, he lived every day of the rest of the life with the effects of his war. He had been a prisoner of war on some island in the South Pacific. "They were....very mean to him," my mother said, hesitatingly, choosing her words carefully, "They hurt him, and he came back missing...a lot. He doesn't like to talk about it so you are never to mention it again."

I promised, and never did. I never heard more details than that. But I remembered.

My maternal grandfather held a slightly different point of view. He didn't mind talking about his war time experiences, and once even agreed to be the subject of a school project. He'd had An Adventure, or that was the side of it he told.

He was in the Navy, in the Pacific. One sunny day, as he walked to his post, he realized he'd forgotten something and ducked back to get it. His buddy walked on ahead. As my grandfather started on to deck, he heard the noise, and before his mind could process it, there was a flash, and the bow of the ship was gone, as were his buddy, and the other men over there, where he should have been. It was somewhere near Australia, and on that day, a kamikaze Japanese pilot plowed straight through his ship, slicing it in half.

Amazingly, they were able to reach a port on Australia and the rest of the crew were saved, including my grandfather, who was barely 18 at the time.

Imagine that.

Imagine seeing that, going through that, dealing with 18.

At 18, I was worried about my Spring finals my freshman year of college. I was thinking maybe not medical school. And I was worried what classes to take the next year. That was my stress. My drama.

They both came home. I watched them both through the years, and I remembered. I decided that for my paternal grandfather, losing his teeth was the lesser of his losses, and for my maternal grandfather...well, I sometimes wondered if interrupting a developing psyche---such as in a traumatic war---can fracture it in some way...make bad things.

Then came Vietnam. I remember my father had friends who didn't come home, but mostly I remember the ones who did. I remember one friend who passed out simply because my sister had cut her lip. The blood, the situation, the people running to help brought back his recent time as a medivac.

As Tim Robbins said, while discussing his new movie Catch A Fire, these sorts of situations ask a man to compromise himself.

I agree.

War asks a man or woman to compromise himself or herself, as well as family, and's a ripple effect through all who know and rely on this person, all who care.

And so, today, I don't want to remember what these people have done for me. Today I want to remember them. What they have done, gone through, given up, come home with, or the loss.

I'll remember. It hangs heavily on me, what soldiers do and go through.

It hangs even more heavily on me what happens to civilians in war.

I can only hope it hangs heavily on those who made the decision to put us all in this position.

By Julie Pippert
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© 2006. All images and text exclusive property of Julie Pippert. Not to be used or reproduced.

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