Thursday, October 7, 2010

Home of the Brave

Did you know that today marked the ninth anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan? I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I don't remember the beginning of the war. I was a senior in high school, less then a month after 9/11, but I haven't the faintest recollection of learning that a war had begun. I do, though, remember fear: fear that a draft would be instated, fear that my friends, just months from graduation, would be the first to be pulled into service.

The draft never happened, but some of them still made the voluntarily decision to serve. A program booklet at our commencement listed graduates' post-high school plans; the list of those headed into military service wasn't long, but it was substantial. In a small Ohio town, it was the best opportunity some of them had to make lives for themselves. And others? others had spent their whole lives dreaming of it.

Before I left D.C. last month, I made a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where some of our country's most dedicated servicemembers are buried. I'd been meaning to go for awhile, in part because I think every American who has the chance to do it ought to, out of respect. And in part because I once knew someone who's now buried there.

We weren't friends, not really. I couldn't claim to have been his friend - the biggest contribution he made to my life was teaching me the meaning of a verrrry unsavory slang term - but I remember him well, a loud, redheaded football player with big ideas & kind words. When Student Council elections came up, he ran for president; if he didn't win, he said, he'd be graduating early & shipping out for the Marines. And when he didn't win, enlist & ship out he did. He died four years ago this month, at age 24, of injuries sustained while defusing a roadside bomb. He was serving his third tour of Iraq.

As one of the few people from my high school living in close enough proximity to visit, I promised myself I'd make it to Arlington to pay my respects, not just for me but, I liked to think, partially on behalf of a city devastated by the death of a hometown hero. I was, in a word, overwhelmed. Rows & rows of headstones, as far as the eye can see, in all directions. Total verbal silence from visitors, even the smallest of children. Endless names of real people, of men & women who died for what they believed in.

The headstones at Arlington are numbered from the back, & when you head into the visitors' center, you can print off a sheet of paper with a number & a map telling you exactly how to get to the headstone you're looking for. I came upon his grave from the back, just rows from where a few members of the military were paying their respects to a recently buried comrade. I was afraid to be near them, afraid I didn't deserve to be there while they were. After all, what have I given our country? So I made eye contact with them, somewhat embarrasedly, & nodded in their direction, hoping it would convey the respect & deference I felt. They nodded back; I sat in the grass at my old classmate's grave to cry, to take it all in, to realize with shock that he was two years younger when he died than I am now. And then I left a rock atop his headstone, because that's what Jews do, & I walked back to the Metro in silence, & carried on with my everyday life - went to Starbucks, hung out with friends, applied for jobs. Kept being me.

I don't agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, I balk at accusations that those who oppose the wars are by default disrespectful of those who serve in them. From the bottom of my heart, I respect our members of the military - the work they do, the reasons they do it, the sacrifices they make. It's a funny thing to say, I guess, a line most people reserve for Jesus, but to me, it makes more sense in a place like Arlington: They died so that we may live.

[In other words: Have you thanked a servicemember lately?]

12 comments:

Dena said...

I'd just given birth to my daughter 2 days before this started. My wits finally came about me on October 7 when I asked the nurse to turn on the TV. I saw that we had gone to war and I asked her to turn it off. My daughter has known 2 entire days of her life with no war. She just turned 9 on Tuesday.

I was raised in the military and 3 generations of my family have served, not to mention the numerous friends who followed in their parents' footsteps. Thanks for remembering - I thought I was the only one who did.

Mr Z said...

I have a few things to say here, unsolicited of course. I was in the Navy. It was a job... patriotic, but a job. I gained from the training and that was my goal. Risking my life was part of the deal. Nobody enlists to any service thinking they can't die. Okay, some autistic folk might make it that far.

They do not deserve your respect. Not one of them. They are dead. They cannot appreciate the effort you went through to visit their graves. What they gave their life for deserves your respect. No, I'm not dissing those who died. Their friends and family ought to respect them as they would have if they were not in the military, but having died while in military service does not instantly deserve respect. There are a lot of assholes who join the military and die there. They are not deserving of respect simply because they did this one thing.

Save your respect for those that deserve it. As it happens, I'm a war vet, but do not deserve any respect for that. I did nothing heroic or special. I just happened to be serving when we were at war. If you wish to respect someone, learn about them, tell someone else about the good of that person. Don't simply adorn them with unwarranted respect because they wore a uniform. Priests wear uniforms.

Now, I agree, Arlington cemetery is a great place to visit if you can. It symbolizes the sacrifices made to secure the liberties we have. Sacrifices born on the lives of our military and volunteers. They did something good, but it does not wipe away all they might have done bad. It's not a get out of jail card. I do not ask nor expect any such get out of jail respect because I served in the military, and I am willing to be that many others are like me.

When you give unwarranted respect to just anyone, it diminishes the respect due to those that actually do deserve it. In life, we all do what we need to do, when the time comes to do it. Members of our (or any) military are no different. Some will distinguish themselves, most will not. Because they died does not mean they are owed respect. Save your respect for those you know deserve it.

In this world there are records of millions who have died honorably in war. When we give them unwarranted respect, we give honor to war, killing, and the kind of chaos we hope they protect us from. I do not agree with those who picket military funerals, but I also believe that unwarranted respect foments irrational nationalism, and clouds clear thinking about the world.

The last line of your post is more poignant than you can know. They die so that we may live. Sacrifice is part of being human, doing so for others is also part of being human.

I ask that you do not respect and commemorate them... but that you celebrate them. Not because they were heros, but because they did what had to be done.... and it benefited the rest of us. Celebrate, not honor. Celebrate that we have such people in our midst. Celebrate that we, as a species, are capable of such values, that we can do selfless things. Their lives represent what we can all be when the time comes. They are singled out because they wore a uniform, but none of them felt like heros when the time ended. They were just people doing what they could to protect what they loved, as we all would.

Not honor... celebrate that we have such people, that we are all capable of this. Celebrate all those who sacrifice for your safety and comfort. There are millions who do not die but sacrifice anyway for your safety and comfort. They are as deserving of thought as those in Arlington.

Staschwa said...

I remember when we officially went to war. I was babysitting for my stepmom's friend. I was there at 7am or so, and all I was to do was watch TV until the kids woke up. That's all that was on, everyone's take on the war. Had those news stories not been on, I would have completely forgotten I ever babysat for that family (or forgotten that day, really. I can't remember the kids' names at all.)

When I was traveling to Mexico in August, we were stopped in the Dallas/Ft Worth airport for a layover. All of the sudden, as I'm getting the bagel and schmear I ordered at Einstein Brothers, this surge of applause rang out. I couldn't really see, but apparently a plane nearly full of camo-dressed soldiers had unboarded, and passerby were literally giving them a standing applause (I'd say ovation but it doesn't seem right.) The applause lasted a good five minutes, and you could hear it wave through the airport as the line of soldiers moved through.

I've never felt that patriotic, but as I held my potato bagel with veggie spread, I thought, "gosh I'm lucky to be an American."

rachelsmiles said...

arlington cemetery is incredible. My dad's dad was buried there 2 years ago. It really is breaktaking and somewhat "creepy" but in a good way. Hard to describe, but definitely a sight everyone should see.

spleeness said...

This was really beautiful. I'm trying to type a comment worthy of your moving post but I just keep erasing and starting over. Thank you for this....

Traci Arbios said...

This broke my heart just a little bit.

Kristin & Megan said...

My grandfather is buried there. It is truly a moving experience to visit Arlington!

Ruby said...

i thank any and all men and women in uniform. i also feel sort of goofy doing it but once i sat next to a marine on a flight from israel to philly and thanked him for his service. he told me that was such a wonderful thing to say. he also told me not to feel silly.

Erin B. Inspired said...

Cue the waterworks.

I dated a soldier and J is in the Navy. I've personally known countless men and women who have been shipped overseas for this war, though I've never lost anyone. I have a huge, huge, HUGE place in my heart for those in the service. HUGE. I can't wait to make it out to Arlington again. There's something so sad, but majestic about it.

terra said...

Love the Soldier, not the war, that's always been my motto. Having been in the military for 7 (!!) years now I try to explain that I might not always agree with the decisions made the higher levels and I might not agree with the current wars we've tangled ourselves up in, but I serve because I believe in what our country was founded on.

As for Arlington, it's one of the most beautiful, heavy places I've ever been. I can't explain it, but I feel connected to each and every headstone, knowing that they're all my brothers and sister in arms.

Becky said...

Thanks for this. I work with a lot of active-duty military, and while they're all in "desk" jobs now, I know they've all done deployments in different places that meant putting their life at risk for all of us. It's hard not to thank them all the time for it (they brush it off saying this is what they're supposed to be doing), but something like this really helps put it in perspective.

over the counter fertility pil said...

upon it from global finance and business. A tall order. But, if successful, Egypt may then truly earn the title of "land of the free and home of the brave."

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