Death Be Not Proud
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. – John Donne, Holy Sonnet Number 10
Few national holidays are as solemn, or call for more than just a token gesture in between trips to the beach and barbecues than Memorial Day. This is the day, after all, when we as one people remember all those whose blood has stained battlefields as close as Saratoga Springs, NY and Manassas, VA and as far as The Philippines, Archangel, and Tunisia. Fighting in our names and for our sakes, whether left on a distant shore or returned home and resting in American soil, these are our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. They belong to all of us, because they gave themselves for all of us.
Along with being solemn, it is always necessary – please notice I didn’t say “important”; this is something all of us and each of us must do to honor those who have fallen – to consider that not all those who return to us in caskets with full honors died a heroes death. Some died from illness (in fact, illness and infection normally took a far higher toll than did battle; it was improvements in medical care that made war far more bloody); some died never having seen their opponent because they were trapped below the deck of a ship torpedoed by a submarine, sinking so fast no one could escape; some died accidentally from fire from their own forces; still others were simply cannon fodder, bodies piled upon bodies, dying for no reason at all. Finally, we should remember those whose deaths were preventable either because the battle or even the whole war was preventable. Consider the British on the Somme in World War I: over 400,00 casualties, with 95,00 dead with the only result being the Germans, who bled themselves dry defending every inch of the roughly two miles the British gained, still managed only to lose 1 solider for every 2 British and Commonwealth forces lost. The entire exercise was unnecessary because everyone involved knew that movement on the Western Front was impossible under the conditions of 1916.
Folks like me, back in 2002-2003, we were very vocal in our opposition to any invasion of Iraq. Not because we thought Saddam Hussein was a great guy, or because the prospect of nuclear-armed terrorists made us warm and fuzzy inside. No, I opposed the war because pretty much every reason offered by the Bush Administration was made up. Fantasy. Disproved before spoken. Bullshit of the highest order. I remember very clearly watching in real time as pretty much ever word uttered by a member of the Bush National Security team was debunked, usually within a few hours, certainly no more than a few days,after being spoken. It was, perhaps, the best snow job a group of politicians performed on the American people. Just enough of us said, “OK”, that in March, 2003, the planes flew, the tanks rolled and now we have Boko Haram and ISIS and still al Qaeda and God knows what else, and Iraq is a mess, either unwilling or incapable of defending itself and still those same people who sold us an empty sheet of paper claimed to be a message from God want us to send more troops, more equipment, shoot and bomb and use artillery against more Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, whomever. For some reason, the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and Marines just aren’t as precious as the their need to look all macho before the American people.
And the whole, “knowing what I know now” excuse doesn’t work either. We in the public knew the whole thing was nonsense; certainly those in positions of authority understood that far more. And, yes, I include Democrats as well as Republicans in this; a vote for the AUMF was never about national security concerns. It was about political calculation versus simple honesty. The thousands dead, tens of thousands wounded in mind and body, the divisions our national discussions and debates and arguments over this war are festering, making any political action nearly impossible.
In February of 2003, I gave a talk before a group of United Methodist laypeople. I couldn’t be silent; I spoke not only my opposition to the coming invasion, but the reality that we were, in my words, “being lied to.” Afterward, a gentleman insisted he speak to me privately. I could tell he was upset. It was a bit surreal; he was concerned because his son was in place, preparing to participate in the invasion. All the same, he was more than angry – he was, in fact, enraged; I honestly believed he would physically assault me – at the fact that I had spoken out against the war. He refused to hear me say that I thought the best thing for his son would be that the invasion never happen. I am still befuddled; not that he might support an invasion. Rather, I am befuddled that he and millions of others didn’t understand our opposition to any invasion of Iraq was rooted in our patriotism; in our love for our country; and, yes, in the honor and esteem with which we hold our military. More than our family members; these are men and women who train and train, pushed beyond any limits most of us could even imagine. They should be sent out not to make politicians look good. Being the sharp end of our spear, they should be used only at the last necessity. They are far too precious to be spent uselessly, needlessly, on faulty evidence and to make lying politicians look good.
On Memorial Day, we face our national obligation to honor our fallen. Part of honoring our fallen is not only remembering their courage, the extremes they faced in duty to their country, and that their supreme sacrifice helps keep us free. Another part of honoring our fallen is acknowledging how many of our fallen are dead for no reason at all; how many graves are filled with bodies that should be walking among us. Whether it’s the tactical error of incompetent general officers or the strategic errors of politicians more impressed with their own reputations for toughness than they are with the actual toughness of our men and women in uniform, we can only truly honor those who died when we make sure we are vigilant and careful in how we decide to send more troops and sailors in to harm’s way. We should never allow ourselves to be bullied in to following the crowd, or shouted in to silence, or intimidated by those who insist that resistance to any particular military action is a sign of disloyalty. On the contrary – it is a sign of love, respect, and deep patriotism to insist that we kill people for no reason.
Don’t we owe them that much, too, on this Memorial Day?