I was born 17 years after the end of the Second World War. By the time I was cracking open history textbooks, WWII had already taken its place as one of the defining events in American history, alongside the Revolution and the Civil War. The war was portrayed as a great military victory of the Allies over the Axis – but also as a great moral victory of good triumphing over evil. Young Americans were taught that our country had done a great good thing by joining the war in Europe and by defending ourselves after the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was not much nuance used in descriptions of the Germans or the Japanese. We beat the Nazis and the Japs, and in the process America saved the world.
I was enormously proud of my country. How could you not be proud watching newsreel footage of American soldiers liberating Jews from the camps? We had sacrificed much as a nation and many of our soldiers had died in battle. We were the good guys. And when I was 7, I watched American astronauts plant the flag on the moon. That served to confirm that I lived in the best country on earth.
Hindsight is 20/20. I learned long ago that the world is far more complex than a cartoonish battle between Good and Evil. In war, the victors get to write the history books. But I was right to be proud of my country when I was a kid. I am still proud of this country, for many reasons. But not for its propensity toward war. Since our founding (in war) 238 years ago, the United States of America has enjoyed only a handful of years when we did not have troops deployed in battle somewhere in the world. This detailed timeline of American military operations is startling in its documentation of our near-continuous involvement in warfare. And not all of our conflicts have been as noble as the Revolution or WWII. Not all wars are just; some are just war.
Though I came to know the complex history of our involvement in Vietnam, and to understand the central role of domestic politics in America’s international adventures… I only have one memory of my experience of that war as a young child in the 60s: the body counts on the nightly newscast. “Today in Vietnam, 236 American troops were killed… 177 Americans troops were killed… 341 American troops were killed… 232 American troops were killed…” and so on, every night. It is said that Walter Cronkite started these body counts on his nightly news broadcast as a way to put pressure on the government to end the war. It also may have had the effect of dehumanizing the horrendous costs of war, reducing people to numbers.
In any event, my experience of war has been as a distant bystander. I realize how fortunate that makes me. No one in my family has fought in war or died in battle. That is true of most Americans. In a nation of more than 300 million people, less than 1% of us have been directly involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while we all felt attacked on September 11, that was an act of terror. Terrorism is not war, which is why war is never going to be the answer to terrorism. But that’s another post for another day.
Today is Memorial Day, the day America remembers her war dead. It is also the unofficial start of summer, a three-day weekend marked mostly by barbecues and get-togethers of family and friends. There have always been parades, though not so much anymore. Maybe mostly in small-town America. I went to a barbecue last night, and that was fun. But earlier in the day, I did something I’ve never done before. I visited a military cemetery.
Where Wilshire Blvd crosses the 405 freeway is one of the busiest intersections – and one of the quietest corners – in Southern California. That’s where you’ll find the Los Angeles National Cemetery, sandwiched between the freeway and the UCLA campus in Westwood. And that’s where I found myself yesterday afternoon, almost by accident. A shortcut earlier in the week had taken me down Veteran Avenue, which – I discovered – is the eastern border of the cemetery between Sunset and Wilshire. So, yesterday after I left the pool at the Westwood Rec Center, I found the entrance to the cemetery and drove in.
Why? Well, I know that some might find this disappointing, but I wanted to take some photographs. As I drove down Veteran last week, I couldn’t help but notice what beautiful parkland held this cemetery. Gentle hills, magnificent old trees undisturbed by development – and the mesmerizing patterns of crisp white markers on green lawns, stretching in every direction as far as I could see. 100+ acres of peace and quiet in the middle of this sprawling, frenetic city.
As an atheist, I do not experience cemeteries as places of supernatural significance. But of course, I understand this is hallowed ground to many, and why. For me, a place like this has enormous historical importance, and can teach so much to future generations. The endless repetition of small white, identical grave markers becomes a symbolic representation of a nation’s loss and sacrifice.
But all one has to do is focus on any single marker for it to become very personal. There’s not much room on these stones. The story each one tells is limited to a name, date of birth, date of death, theatre of war. It’s enough, though, to conjure a sense of a single human being… among thousands buried here… among millions who have died in war… among billions who have ever lived. I saw markers on the graves of men who had died in Iraq and in Afghanistan, in Vietnam and Korea, in WWII’s battles in Europe and the Pacific, and going back all the way to “the Great War” (WWI) and the Spanish American War – which is abbreviated “Sp.Am. War” on the markers. That’s an immense sweep of our history, all in the tiny portion of the cemetery that I walked through yesterday. Wars of great moral purpose. Wars of proxy between ‘superpowers’. And wars waged by criminals who have brought immense dishonor on America.
Whether a soldier or sailor died defending America’s honor, or in the service of cowardly politicians’ egos, it is easy to believe, in the midst of thousands of white markers, that those Americans who died in our wars were fighting for the country they loved – the same one we love. And for that, they deserve to be honored and remembered. Not only in military cemeteries, and not only on national holidays. But all the time. If more of us remembered the sacrifices required by past wars, it might make future wars less easy to begin. Because the only thing harder than dying in war should be starting the next one. True patriots understand that.
The End (so far)