War is contrary to the will of God. — World Council of Churches, 1948
When I was a professional ecumenist, I lived in a rarified milieu in which Memorial Day — so beloved on Main Streets all over the USA — was bitterly controversial.
Liberal Protestants and historic peace churches struggle to reconcile the words of Jesus with the reality of war. They resent the fact that Memorial Day honors not only the men and women who gave their lives in battle, but also pays homage to the wars that took them from us.
This exaltation of war may work with “good wars” like World War II, but not so much when we honor those nasty wars that are harder to justify, like Vietnam, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the war against Iraq or America’s longest war in Afghanistan.
My home village of Port Chester, N.Y., offers a heart-pounding Memorial Day celebration. It begins in a small memorial park on Westchester Avenue with the high school band playing patriotic music. The village veterans perspire at attention in their size-62 blazers and legionnaire caps while politicians thank them for their service. I wear my U.S. Air Force veteran baseball cap to the ceremonies and return the salutes of other vets as we throw sweaty arms around each other.
I love it and I hate it.
Some of my happiest memories of growing up in Morrisville, N.Y., are of Memorial Day. My heart swelled with pride when Dad dug out his legionnaire’s cap, as did other middle-aged men I knew and loved: Jack Irwin, my smart, gentle and nurturing pastor, or John Gourley, my high school history teacher, or Reg Dodge, my junior high history teacher, or DeForest Cramer, my Little League coach. I had little idea what they had done to earn their caps, but I was sure it was something heroic. And when I watched them walking together in the Memorial Day parade, laughing and joking with each other, I figured whatever they did in war couldn’t have hurt them much.
When I came of age, these good men inspired me to join the Air Force. Many of my contemporaries went to Vietnam that year. I spent three years in the rice paddies of England where the greatest threats to our base were agitated units of the Baader Meinhof Complex.
Each Memorial Day when I was overseas, legionnaires from Morrisville, mostly World War I and World War II vets, sent me a small U.S. flag and promised to “keep the fires of freedom burning at home while you keep it burning abroad.” Reading their note at my typewriter in the base chapel, it sounded like an invitation to arson. But I loved those guys. They made me feel a part of the Memorial Day tradition going all the way back to Bunker Hill.
I was in the Air Force for four years. I served in the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing under the command of General Robin Olds, who would go on to become the Vietnam War’s first hero “Ace,” shooting down numerous MiG fighter jets over the Delta, and General Daniel N. “Chappy” James, a giant of a man who would become the Air Force’s first African American four-star general. The troops loved the dynamic duo and, immune to ethnic sensitivities, called them “Black Man and Robin” behind their backs. I thought they were the greatest men I would ever know.
I passed many markers on the way to adulthood during those years, including developing chin hair and becoming a born again Christian. No sooner did Jesus enter my heart than I realized the truth he brought could be inconvenient for a member of the aerospace team. Jesus may have washed my sins away, but he left a nagging pacifism in their place.
I mustered out of the Air Force with an honorable discharge, an expert marksman’s badge and a good conduct medal in August 1968. I enrolled at Eastern Baptist College the following month. Within weeks I became an active member of the anti-Vietnam War movement in college, wearing peace badges on my fading military field jacket. I graduated in 1971 and began work as a writer at the American Baptist national offices across the ridge from Eastern.
Through the years as I spoke with veterans, getting information from them about the trauma that haunted their youth wasn’t easy. The only time my dad talked about his experience in the South Pacific was when we were watching “The Big Picture” on our black and white Admiral TV. The show offered grainy newsreels of World War II, and occasionally Dad would comment, “I did that,” or, “I was there,” so I knew he had climbed down the netting of a troop carrier or crawled through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. He also had some souvenir Papuan cloth that had been pounded out of the bark of a local tree, and a pair of Japanese army chopsticks in a narrow wooden case.
Toward the end of his life I discovered Dad’s canvas-covered GI diary. I suspect it was a sanitized record of his life in the South Pacific, but what he did record was horrifying.
In his familiar handwriting, in blue fountain pen ink, Dad — a second lieutenant — wrote about a night patrol he was leading through the jungle. It was wet and dark, and Dad ordered the patrol to dig in for the night.
According to the diary, Dad and another soldier had concealed themselves in the roots of a tree when a Japanese patrol crept by. An armed Japanese soldier, naked except for a loin cloth, appeared in front of him. Dad pulled the trigger of his machine gun and the man dropped into the mud. As the sweat dripped down his face, Dad lay motionless in the dark. The Japanese soldier began to groan.
Dad wrote little about what it felt like to hear the man’s agonized whimpers all night long, not knowing if his enemy was still able to shoot his rifle or if he was losing consciousness.
Would Dad have put him out of his misery if he could see him? Did the thought cross Dad’s mind that this so-called “Jap” was actually another human being like him, perhaps with a wife and loved ones back home? Did Dad — always good with irony — think about how insane it was that this stranger had been trying only moments ago to kill him, and would have if Dad hadn’t shot first? And how badly wounded was the man? And why wouldn’t he just die?
I don’t know how often Dad dreamed about that night over his remaining six decades, and I will never know whether it was the worst of his combat experiences, or just one he thought his mother could tolerate if she happened to find the diary. The few words that are there are enough to answer the riddle why Dad spent the rest of his life battling the bottle. But the few words don’t explain why, each Memorial Day, he laughed and joked breezily with his fellow cap wearers.
I’m not sure what the other father figures in my life did during their war years. I know Reg Dodge was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in England, stationed close to the base where I lived for three years. Dee Cramer was a sailor. John Gourley was an Army sergeant.
And for years, Jack Irwin said nothing about what he did during the war.
Years later it was revealed that Irwin had been a teenage tank gunner in Europe after the Battle of The Bulge. Irwin’s 90 mm guns were not only responsible for untold numbers of German deaths (he estimates in the hundreds), but his outfit was a liberator of the Nordhausen Concentration camp where he saw human depravity on a scale most people could never imagine.
As another Memorial Day passes us, I'm remembering many others who served. Dad and all the other father figures I loved are long gone, and so are millions like them.
All were caught up in cataclysmic human events that were contrary to the will of God, and all were damaged in ways they could never tell us. They all had experiences they clearly wanted to forget on Memorial Day.
Each year I experience Memorial Day with ambivalence, especially when the speeches and celebrations are used to celebrate the wars that make it necessary.
But I’m not ambivalent about the men and women who served. Dad, Jack, John, Reg, Dee, so many others.
I wish I had had a chance to tell them: Even if it was so bad you tried to hide it from us, and even if we will never fully understand what you went through, we will never forget you.