war

We Are All War Memorials


Aftermath

“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.”

– by Siegfried Sassoon

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Like so many other Americans since Vietnam, modern Jingoism has made me weary of nationalism in general. This sentiment is not one of anti-patriotism or even anti-war sentiment, but one that makes vigilant effort to consider the costs of war so grave as to be entered into it at the exclusion of all alternatives.

This spring I was devastated to learn that an old high school friend of mine was killed in action. We hadn’t been close in years, but the man was a compassionate light that brought infectious joy into any room he entered. I spent weeks under a dark cloud after I heard the news, trying to understand all that happened. We never do. We, our very lives, are memorials to wars.

We should keep that in mind on Memorial Day and every day.

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“Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.”

I hear some people pursuing the reflection on the tragic “point” of Memorial Day almost to the exclusion of all celebration. I think grief is a very appropriate emotion today, but I think we should create a tone of celebration. We celebrate the lives lived and the gift given by the fallen, the success of their efforts, and the monumental lives and families build on the foundations they have provided.

_________

“Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?'”

Sassoon asked this after WWI, and shortly his question was answered. We should be turning our grief to sober-mindedness and our celebration to continued action, asking the same question and turning it to wisdom in alleviating further war.

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Further Reading

World War Develops Great Art

“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

Wendell Berry On Children And The Cold War

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Wendell Berry, Family, and The Cold War


“There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.”

“To A Siberian Woodsman”
Wendell Berry
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The title and content of this poem take on greater meaning when it is noted that this was published in the earlier years of the Cold War.

Somehow, looking back at a previous generations Cold War and Vietnam makes the question of the current wars all the more greying to the beard and furrowing to the brow. I read this thought from of a young Wendell Berry, speaking of his laughing children at play, and I manage somehow to veiw joyful youth and grow very old, all at once.

Every line speaks a gift and a curse.

Author Quotes: Wendell Berry and Our Violent Heritage


“When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history. What I am has been to a considerable extent determined by what my forebears were, by how they chose to treat this place while they lived in it; the lives of most of them diminished it, and limited its possibilities, and narrowed its future. And every day I am confronted by the question of what inheritance I will leave. What do I have that I am using up? For it has been our history that each generation in this place has been less welcomed to it than the last. There has been less here for them. At each arrival there has been less fertility in the soil, and a larger inheritance of destructive precedent and shameful history.

I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the revelation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.”

– Wendell Berry, Excerpt from the essay “A Native Hill”
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I rediscovered this essay a few days ago and it was a welcome comfort to read the same sentiments I have been wrestling with spoken of with the characteristically gentle articulation that Wendell Berry brings to all his writings.

I am a great lover of nature and physical spaces. While I have long been considering the tragedies we commit against nature agriculturally and ecologically, I have been realizing in a shocking new way that every physical place is stained with the blood of the innocent. Perhaps “realizing” isn’t the correct word. I’ve known it long, but it is beginning to violently discourage me.

My heart has been heavy with the immensity of human suffering in every corner of this beautiful planet. Not just human suffering, but oppression at the hands of other men. Human history is a series of violent oppressions, revolutions, exterminations, and slaveries. Men fight each other as tribes until they are stolen away to become generations of slaves in a foreign land, a land itself obtained by the routing and eradication of the native children by those who arrived there themselves under force of oppression. It’s almost too much to bear, and at this point the gravity of it makes me despair regardless of the beauty of the greatest landscapes.

Berry goes on to sight further historic references and propose that it is our disconnection from identifying with a multi-generational history and a detachment to our physical land that leads us to consume without question and thus builds over generations a willingness toward violence.

I can see the correlation.

Read A Native Hill here.