In Flanders Fields
I was in third grade, red crayon in hand, with a blank piece of white construction paper sitting in front of me. My instructions were to draw a red poppy, and Mrs. Peterson had brought in some Buddy Poppies for us to use as our models. I drew a big World War II-style helmet with a poppy growing out of it, and added the caption “Remember our Vets” written in my third-grade cursive.
Mrs. Peterson took the posters we had made to the various businesses in Hallock to display on their windows and after school my friends and I went around town to find out which store displayed our “artwork.” Mine was put up at Gullander’s Hardware on the window facing the street. I was proud that my artwork was on display, but then I started actually thinking about Memorial Day.
In 1970 we were in the midst of watching our government fight another war, and this war was on TV nearly every night. The war was hugely unpopular with my family, and we supported the peace protests that were being held around the country. My dad was the only person in the family who would defend the idea that the United States should be at war against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. The battles at the kitchen table sometimes rose to shouting levels between my brother and my father.
My brother ended up dropping out of school at the University of Minnesota in 1971 and shortly thereafter joined the Navy. The main reason he volunteered was to avoid the draft. He didn’t want to go into the Army, and he certainly didn’t want to be sent to Vietnam. He served out his tour aboard an Admiral’s cruise line that ran from Norfolk to Bermuda. He had his own reasons for volunteering for military service. Not many would say they were “admirable,” but I think it was a pragmatic solution for someone opposed to the Vietnam War.
Twenty-six years earlier, my father volunteered for the Navy and his war was far different. Dad was just leaving high school. He graduated in 1945, and by the time he could enlist, Hitler had been defeated and the Allies had finished celebrating V-E Day. The attention and the might of the U.S. military and our South Pacific allies were focused on Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese. By August of 1945, with Dad still in San Diego waiting for assignment, the bombs dropped and Japan surrendered. He never saw battle. Now, when I consider the ethics of nuclear war as practiced by the United States in August of 1945, I wonder whether I am alive because of the horrible deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens.
My maternal grandfather’s war was World War I. It was the Great War, billed as the “War to End All Wars.” My grandfather was gassed while in the infantry in France, and he survived to come home. He lived a full life without long-term ill effects. He raised children, started a farm, carried the mail and served as mayor of Lancaster in the 1960’s.
His son, my uncle, volunteered for service during the Korean War. I know this from photographs, but he doesn’t talk about it much. In fact, he doesn’t talk about it at all. He returned, uninjured, and like his father, started a farm and raised children and grandchildren and delivered the mail.
This is the extent of the military participation of my immediate family. All of them came home, even during times of war. And as I was thinking about the poppies and how they have come to symbolize those who don’t come home, those who are buried in foreign lands or in Arlington National Cemetery, I thought of Flanders Field and the poppies made famous by John McCrae of Canada in 1915:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
When the U.S. entered the Great War in 1917, it was supposed to be the final time that nations took up arms against each other. Following the war, democracy would be the manner in which disputes were to be settled. Wilson proposed a League of Nations, but it faltered. A treaty meant to miserably punish the Germans for their role in the Great War led to resentment and an excruciating economic crisis in Germany and resulted in a second Great War for freedom and democracy.
Contemplating poppies, I realized that even though “freedom” and “democracy” are inspiring words that induce Americans to go to war in foreign countries knowing that they may not return, there has never been a war for freedom and democracy. I realized that wars are a function of differential economics, and whatever face is put on a war, it comes down to “our side” fighting so we don’t starve. I am aware that this is an oversimplification and that throughout history, wars have had complex roots, but I think that buried below these tangled roots lies the perception that one must keep the enemy from blocking access to the resources needed for survival.
These resources may be land, food, energy or lebensraum, but they are vital resources. Manifest Destiny was a matter of securing the vast lands of the Western United States so that our white descendants could continue to expand their range and have access to resources and diminish Mexico’s access to those resources, contrary to the survival of the natives we found here when we arrived.
In order to inspire the people to sacrifice for war, other more palatable causes and reasons for war are placed in front of the public. “King and country.” “Democracy.” “Order.” “The rise of new socialist man.” “Our god is the True God and their god is false.” It is easier to kill an infidel than it is to kill someone defending their homeland. Whatever the purpose of a war may be, its root cause is a fight for limited resources when trade fails. Demonizing and diminishing the enemy, either those against whom we defend our homelands or those whose homelands we need, takes on various faces of hatred so that we willingly sacrifice our soldiers and our efforts and selves, takes on the face of religion, freedom, philosophical differences over how people should be governed, or retaliation for past wars and indignities. It is economic.
The members of my family who went away came back. I am grateful. On Memorial Day, we give thanks to the sacrifice of those who faced the horrors of war and “saw sunsets glow” just days before they died on foreign seas or soils. The poppies bloom and the larks fly over their graves.
Individuals go to war for various reasons. Some are conscripted into war to fight as slave soldiers for their enemy, as in the case of the Irish in the Napoleonic Wars. Some leave their families believing it is the best way to protect them, to have something worth returning to. Pat Tillman, an atheist who was opposed to our war in Iraq, volunteered and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Those who don’t return leave behind families who must deal with the loss. They must deal with a mixture of despair, pride and hatred for war.
That my family has emerged so far relatively unscathed by war doesn’t take away my personal frustration and resignation that war will never end. President Obama may be able to fully pull out of the Iraq mess caused by Cheney and Bush (using torture as a means to create a false link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda). Afghanistan may never be resolved, and we will likely be mired there for years and then be fighting in Pakistan. It’s a scary situation, and I am glad I am not the President trying to figure this all out.
There are more than six billion people on one planet, struggling to survive, to eat and keep warm. There are other people in our way of doing this. Humanity is not yet capable of figuring out how to strip away the veneer of the nominal causes of war and deal peacefully with the root causes of war, and I don’t honestly see a way out of it. I have seen videos on “Forgiveness Training” and how peacemakers are trying to end tribal hatreds among the youth in troubled lands. I admire their efforts, and I think it will help people who have been hurt by war and tribal hatreds. I don’t think that it will end war. Hatred is a function of war and not its cause.
We have the torch passed to us by the dead, and whether they wanted us to go on fighting for their same cause or wanted us to end the endless cycles of war, we don’t really know. I think that the best we can try to do is fight for little pockets of peace along the way, and then our dead will pass along the torch. What the torch means, McCrae isn’t clear. I think it means “survival.”
Memorial Day is a somber day and a reminder that the world is never safe. There will always be enemies. When the parades hit your streets, when the governors speak of sacrifice, when you open that beer and slap another steak on the grill, take a deep breath and realize that we in America are secure in our abundance (for now) because of war and death. Stop partying for a moment or two and go to the local monument for those who have fallen and thank them.
And if you should chance on a returned vet, whether disabled or physically whole, say thank you.
This entry was posted on Monday, May 25th, 2009 at 6:23 am and is filed under Mike Haubrich, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.