Friday, May 27, 2011

bullet shells

Memorial Day, the day on which the sorrows and sacrifices and victories of war veterans are remembered here in the United States, is right around the corner. Already a wash of flags hangs along nearby public thoroughfares in anticipation of the observance on Monday.

When I was 11, in 1951, my mother took me with her on a trip to Italy. At a small port town where I could swim in the Mediterranean Sea, the beautiful waters I could see through with my diving mask revealed fish and corral and octopus and ... and littered all over the sea floor were shell casings from a war that had ended six years earlier. There were so many of them that I hardly bothered to dive for and save more than five or six ... hell, anything that plentiful could hardly qualify as a "treasure." I made no connections, saw no implications, foresaw no horrors. War was ... well, war was powerful and manly and it let people know what was what -- who the good guys were and who were the bad. In the John Wayne movies I saw at the time, no one screamed and the American flag was ... well, it was the winner.

I don't know because I have not had the experience, but I find it hard to imagine that the men who fired the bullets whose shell casings remained on the sea floor had any idea that they were fighting for or against something. In the midst of a fight, there is only fighting. Philosophy and religion are for children and chairwarmers -- people content to dwell in the past. To find glory and sorrow and soaring rhetoric ... well, I find it hard to imagine that plays much of a role where you are trying to kill me and I am trying to kill you.

General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded American troops in the Pacific version of World War II, was once quoted as saying, "The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." But prayer relies on the past, in a time poorly remembered. Prayer is a rich man's game, a game for those who are not writhing and poverty-stricken in battle.

This morning I wonder what those who were constrained to leave bullet casings on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea might think of a government that passes an extension of the Patriot Act, the legislation that allows the government to "search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists." What would they think of the easy-peasy linguistic foothold that a word like "terrorist" has achieved? Is this what they were fighting for? Is this the American flag? Are all those bullet shells on the ocean floor capable of no better than a television orgy of latter-day John Wayne movies -- exciting, vapid, glorious -- promised for this weekend? Is a country that goes to war with those who might prove a threat what they were fighting for at a time when the threat was empirically present? Is a government that insists on spending billions to assure that the electorate is held in thrall to fears of the latest "enemy" what they put their lives on the line for? Is the ignorance of an 11-year-old child who sees no connections, sees no implications, foresees no horrors a definition of peace? Is the laconic "it's human nature" the best excuse anyone can find for the screams of the past?

I don't know what their answers might be, but I cannot believe they are content. A flag is a bright banner and deserves better treatment than the evidence of the present extends. It is a human apostasy to praise and pray for the men who left those bullet shells on the sea floor without expending every effort, every dollar, every thought to release the pressure on the trigger finger.

Let us all honor the dead ... and recalibrate our own actions. Talk is cheap. Religion is cheap. Philosophy is cheap. Living in the past is a mug's game.

Now is the time.

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