Mixed Memories of Memorial Day | Sojourners

Mixed Memories of Memorial Day

National Cemetary, Dorti / Shutterstock.com
National Cemetary, Dorti / Shutterstock.com

“More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars." - Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 - 1945)

Last week was Memorial Day, but if you are like me your memories of the day are fraught with colorful childhood parades but also with horrors filled with sadness. It makes one wish for the power to short-circuit war.

The earliest recollection for me of a grieving “Gold Star” family is the gathering around the death of my oldest cousin Bob in World War II. Memorial Day dinner with my 93-year-old mother clarified some of the difference between family lore and a 4-year old’s memory. As though it was yesterday I see Bob’s parents and brother gathering with extended family, before the funeral, on the lawn of my grandparents’ home in Rock Rapids, Iowa.  I have no recollection of a memorial service or war cemetery graveside ceremony… but I do recall the tears and unspeakable grief of elders consoling one another about something awful. 

Bob had miraculously survived the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. As the war was nearing its end in the spring of 1945 he was catching some “R and R,” asleep upstairs in a two-story house near the Belgian front. One of his friends was cleaning a M16 on the floor below.  The gun went off killing Bob instantly as he slept.  He became one of the many (20-30 percent it is estimated) war casualties killed by “friendly fire,” or “accidents.”  

Another casualty was my dad’s eldest brother Wayne. He never recovered from this needless death of his first-born son. He was so aggrieved for the rest of his long life that it was nearly impossible for him to attend family gatherings. I still have a pit in my stomach thinking about some of the unsettling scenes.

When the troops go marching by and we salute war heroes  (as I experienced later in 1945 on Victory in Japan Day with thousands of delirious celebrants in the streets of Baltimore) my heart is so heavy for my family and millions of others. They do not spend a day without seeing the face of the loved one at the empty space at the table.  Or in these days the one in a rehab hospital or as street person unable to cope with the residual trauma. 

Last month’s “Newsweek” magazine reported on “veterans committing suicide at unprecedented rates.” It begs the question regarding whether war is worth the cost.  

More “survivors” of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have committed suicide than the about 6,500 who died in the fighting. In percentages of those who served (estimated to be 2.3 million) more women than men have taken their own lives upon returning home. Especially those who have experienced repeated deployment, Dr. Jonathan Shay observes,  “suffer … moral injury … when a soldier’s concepts of trust and right and wrong do not survive the heat of battle.”

From time to time I think about and pray for the soldier who killed my cousin Bob. I wonder what his life must have been like. Did he go to Memorial Day parades and concerts? Did he have a family, a son, meaningful work?

What are political leaders thinking when they send teenagers to the mind-numbing, body-crippling, and soul-destroying experience of killing other human beings? And in the case of the present wars more civilians than “terrorists” suffer death at the hands and drones of NATO. 

While Members of Congress refuse to face these tragedies, they cut social and humanitarian programs while adding the billions to military spending that the Pentagon is not requesting.  

The late and much-admired Sen. Mark Hatfield from Oregon provided some ray of hope for sanity amidst the mindlessness of war. He never voted for a military appropriations measure — even when he was committee chairman. His history as the commander of the naval craft that carried the first allied sea and ground assessment to the site of the Hiroshima bombing affected his advocacy and voting.    

He and his team personally witnessed, as no others have, the devastation and human suffering of an atomic weapon. Subsequently he took to heart President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell warning about the dangers of the “military industrial complex.” 

We have just celebrated in our churches the event at Pentecost where the Apostle Peter (Acts 2) reminds the amazed Jerusalem crowd of the Joel prophecy:

“In the last days, God says

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.”

That message of inclusion (“all flesh” it says in the King James Version) is the call to participate in the loosening of a “violent wind … from heaven” that heals rather than destroys; brings people of all “tongues” together rather than ripping them apart; and leaves a legacy of intact families at the tables rather than poisonous trans-generation trauma. And, by the way, renews all creation.   

Twentieth century artist Rockwell Kent was the noted illustrator of the Herman Melville book “Moby Dick.”  Lesser known but equally compelling is his series on the “Seven Stages of Man” from birth to old age and death. Included are two … the first is “Embrace” that honors young love, and; the second is “Sleeping” which sadly notes the promising young man’s death in the barbed wires of a battle field.  


You may want to visit the Philadelphia Art Museum and stand in prayer before Kent’s anti-war works at a rare public exhibition (until July 29) and remember those millions who have been sacrificed, and still are being offered up in countless nations, on the altars of war.  

And then ask for a work of the Spirit in all of our lives that will help to build a movement for the sake of “all flesh” in warring nations across the world. As Peter, Paul and Mary sang their prayer during the Vietnam War:

“This is my song, Oh God of all the nations … song of peace for their land and for mine. A world united in its love for freedom proclaiming peace together in one song.”     

(Rendition of Finlandia,  Lyrics by Peter, Paul and Mary.)

Tom Getman’s Quaker forebears came to the American colonies with William Penn on the ship Welcome. His Jewish ancestors arrived on another Quaker funded ship as indentured servants to New Amsterdam in 1703.

National Cemetary photo, Dorti / Shutterstock.com

Rockwell Kent illustrations: © Plattburgh State Art Museum, State University of NY, USA.  Rockwell Kent Collection.  Bequest by Sally Kent Gorton, All Rights Reserved. Permission Granted: Philadelphia Art Museum Exhibition.