Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day

I have never been too interested in Veterans Day. I think we can blame some of that on the state of affairs in our household when I was a teenager. Dad was among the worst right-wing idiots on the subject of the Vietnam War. He never did quite catch on that the hippies, peaceniks, and protesters were right – that we were wasting tens of thousands of American lives on a struggle that would not have begun if the French had not colonized Southeast Asia, which they had no right to do; if President Johnson had not lied to the American people about the events of Tonkin Gulf; if corporate money in America had not been so terrified of anything resembling socialism. We got a horrendous backlash on all points – in the socialistic steps of LBJ’s Great Society, for instance, and in riots and the growth of factions promoting violent overthrow of our government.

If we were going to fight in Vietnam, we should have fought to win. Otherwise, we should never have started. Same thing in Iraq. I see these generals making a hash of things – not counting Petraeus, who seems to be playing a bad hand very well – and I think Veterans Day is one more occasion when those who send kids (but not their own!) to die can pretend that they really do realize it is a matter of life and death. So when Dad would hold forth on his ideas (e.g., that we should just line up the peace protesters and shoot them), I think it was understandable that I would not merely reject his views, but would to some extent reject the American military too. It seemed to me that he did not understand what America was all about. I wanted no part of him and his Army, and I had some justification for that attitude.

But today, on this Veterans Day 2007, I am willing to make an exception. The immediate reason is that I just watched a tear-jerking Veterans Day commemoration video. A related reason is that Dad died two days ago, and he was a dad for whom few things in life were as important as the years that he spent in the military.

There is no denying that the miliary is what keeps the country safe. The military has been the vehicle of horrible and atrocious behavior, from the war with Mexico to My Lai to Abu Ghraib; but this is what you get – it is what all armies get, at some point or other – when you train people to kill and destroy. It’s awful stuff to learn how to do, and it needs to cease as soon as there is no longer a threat that other people want to do the same to you. The military’s excesses may stoke that desire on their part, and that prospect needs intensive attention; but there are always going to be freeloaders, abusers, and megalomaniacs who will think that subjugating the people of another country is a fine idea.

This morning, I went for a run in the park. I felt wonderful. It’s because I got eight or nine hours of sleep; and I did that, I think, because I was just worn out at the end of the day yesterday. I can’t say that Dad’s death was the sole reason, but it was clearly a weight that I carried with me for the day. Today, some things seemed to have fallen into place.

It was fitting that I went on that run, and that I felt wonderful doing so, because the Army was not Dad’s only preoccupation. His book, which I have been annotating for some time, is a testament to his years in World War II, but also to his years in the Civilian Conservation Corps. As a CCCer, he planted trees and, as I was thinking on my run this morning, he helped to build a state park somewhat like the place I was running in. He loved trees; and while his taste in books did tend toward warfare and historical battles, his behavior over the past 50 years was much rather in the direction of CCCish trees, stonework, and parks.

Dad fought in a war. The Army impressed him because, I think, it told him exactly where he stood. There were (to him, anyway) none of the picayune, Byzantine politics and innuendoes that would so often ensnare him in civilian life; he was free just to be a man, as he understood the term: to destroy things, to run over things that got in the way, to replace them with the things he preferred, and to build on that basis. In that sense, for him the best of civilian life (both in the CCC and after the war) was that which allowed him to just bust in, ram ahead, and get it done.

So he built a park; he cut trees; he grew and trimmed trees; he took the family on vacations, predominantly to national parks; and he built a home, insofar as he was able to construct a sense of what that might mean, that was surrounded on all sides by sawdust, wood blocks, gardens, trees, bees, stonework, raspberry vines, flowers, and grass, laid out in the way he wished. There, he found a refuge from the outside world, for which he shared a passion with his wife for some 55 years, until they finally gave it up as requiring more work than they could manage in their old age.

In those regards, the house and the war against Japan ran together. There were these outside forces that needed to be repelled, mostly by blood and steel, and there was a vision of better things, done in the American way, that could be constructed on a new beginning. For while I fault Dad’s book as focusing overmuch on his wartime years, as though that were the main thing in his life, I also recognize, within that focus, a preference for telling about the positive, helpful things that one can do within the hell of war. One can pour sulpha into the wound on the leg of a prisoner of war; one can have a conversation with a Japanese person, even though one will be unable to stomach dinner in a Japanese restaurant a half-century later.

Those GIs who gave chewing gum to kids in WWII, who are now embarked on armed social work in Afghanistan and elsewhere, were not originally there to be nice. But they discovered, as Dad did, that the larger purpose behind war is peace. You can train your soldiers to kill, but you cannot necessarily prevent them from crossing the lines to join the Germans in singing hymns on Christmas Eve. I saw some research, recently, in which they seemed to have found that an unbelievable number of soldiers will not be able to make themselves shoot straight at the enemy, even when their failure to do so leads to their own death. We may have an image of what war is, but it ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and it wasn’t with Dad either.

So my dad built a park, fought a war, built a home, and nursed his trees. I resisted against a war, left that home, and, this morning, ran in a park that someone, probably someone like him, built. I can’t quite piece together all the threads that run in and out, among such observations. But I can tell you that I felt great on my run; that I am aware it is Veterans Day; and that I am sorry for what the world’s veterans have had to experience, and am glad for what they have been able to achieve nonetheless. I am sorry they have had to shoot at each other, and I am glad for all the times when their shots have missed. That may not be a suitably morose reaction from someone whose father has died, nor is it a very rah-rah kind of Veterans Day sentiment. But I can’t help that. That's just the way it seems to me.



This is the most engaging and beautifully written thing I've ever read of yours. After all these years of writing, you've turned into a WRITER. Yow.

Thank you.