There are some occasions when a number of events converge for me, and this Memorial Day is one of them. It is the first Memorial Day since my mother’s death; I just returned from visiting Pearl Harbor; and the United States is still at war in Afghanistan.
Not only have I had a decided anti-war bias since the Vietnam War but I am profoundly bored by talk about guns, ships and planes, so I was unprepared for what I experienced on my recent visit to Pearl Harbor when I went to see if I could discover where Dad’s ship, the USS Case, was sitting on December 7, 1941. I’d expected the air to be full of military pheromones and American flags. What I found instead was a quiet sense of respect for all who had been involved in the conflict that day and an attempt to give visitors some sense of what it must have been like.
Dad really never wanted to talk about the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing. He would only say that it was early Sunday morning and no one had expected it. He may have mentioned seeing fires on the ship and oil burning on the water. An account from someone who had been on the Case mentions that later when they passed by the Arizona, they could see it all in flames. The sheer magnitude of the attack must have been staggering. Last night on television, there were interviews of soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, many with post traumatic stress syndrome, describing not only what being in the war did to them in while they were in it, but the difficulty they had with returning to an ordinary life when they came home to their families. Most of them were just out of high school, college age.
I always forget that in 1941, Dad was only 21 years old. He was no older than those faces I see on television and wonder how our country in good conscience can send over men not only to take part in killing first hand, but, if they survive, to live with that experience the rest of their lives. Dad was that young. Just out of high school when he enlisted. I have to make myself remember that he was not even married to Mom at that point. Researching our family history has helped me to realize just how traumatic it must have been for him coming from a small backwater town into the war. It was not that he did not know hardship, since with his family background he certainly did, but he had never seen violence on anything of that scale. His mind when he married Mom must have been still fresh with the images of the fires, burning oil, sinking ships that he saw. He brought those into the marriage with him and they must have been with him again as he sailed out seven days after marriage to face what, for all he knew, might have been another Pearl Harbor. I’ll never knew what he went through, nor would Mom have either, but I wonder, when young, what he told her about them and if they filled his dreams at night.
I still believe that one of the greatest services anyone could do for our country would be to expunge military metaphors and idioms of battle from public debate, but at the same time I have a renewed belief that it important to try to re-envision what it was that people like my father went through and to try to appreciate the effect that it had on them and on the lives of those they loved. Perhaps if we do, we may eventually come to recognize what the poet Wilfred Owen so vividly tried to tell us back after World War I, the reality of “The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori.”