Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Of War and Remembrance

As one who can trace half of my lineage (on my dear mother’s side) to the Old South, I have always felt a special poignancy in the story of the origins of Memorial Day (or, Decoration Day, as it used to be called generally). According to the most common story, one day in late April, just a few years after the Civil War had ended, a group of Southern women in Columbus, Mississippi, were laying flowers on the graves of the Confederate soldiers in their town. Among the 1500 Confederate graves, there were also the graves of 100 Union soldiers who had been killed near there, but whose bodies had never been identified or claimed. So spontaneously, it seems—because it was the right thing to do-- because these mothers, wives, sisters would have wanted their own sons, husbands, and brothers to be treated in this way—they decided to lay flowers on the graves of the Northern soldiers, as well.

It was as though these simple women were taking the first, tentative steps toward reconciliation—toward putting the great Civil War which our nation had just lived through behind them. It would be a process which would take generations. But those women knew that they had to begin, if the nation’s wounds (and their own wounds for that matter) were ever to be healed. So they piled high the japonicas and jasmine and magnolias on Northern and Southern graves alike, and lived out the beautiful words Walt Whitman had written in his “Twilight Song” just a few years before:

You million unwrit names all, all--you dark bequest from all the war,
A special verse for you--a flash of duty long neglected--your mystic roll strangely gather'd here,
Each name recall'd by me from out the darkness and death's ashes,
Henceforth to be, deep, deep within my heart recording, for many future year,
Your mystic roll entire of unknown names, of North or South,
Embalm'd with love in this twilight song.

A year or so ago, Elizabeth and I finished watching once again the television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s epic novel, War and Remembrance. Along with its companion, The Winds of War, the series aired on ABC television in the mid-to-late 1980s. Altogether, the two “mini”-series totaled something over 40 hours in length (which led one critic to call it “the war which never ends”); but it was, altogether, a harrowing piece of television, perhaps the best-made series (certainly the most ambitious) ever on American TV.
The Winds of War and (especially) War and Remembrance, take us through the entire conflagration of World War II, from its origins to its aftermath; through the Munich pact and the invasion of Poland to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Final Solution, and, indeed, even into the gas chambers at Auschwitz (in horrifying, graphic, spine-tingling, stomach-turning detail).

Its perspective is clear and its tone is undeniable: there is little nuance here about who the good guys and the bad guys are. But Wouk is also clear about telling us that war is hell, and only a sick mind or an addled soul glorifies war—and that when we truly remember, we take in the whole of an experience, whether it be war or peace. We see it in its entirety: the heroism, yes; but also the tragedy, the failure, the folly, the destruction it renders in our human souls.  Perhaps the simple point that all the pages and all the filmed hours of Wouk’s work brings home to us is that war is no fun for the “winners”, either; the “good guys” don’t have it any easier in warfare than those we disagree with do. War is hell—for everyone involved. The worst destruction of war may well be what it does to our souls. We all know that. There’s not one of us who would not wish that the scourge of war could be banished from the pages of human history.

But our remembering also reminds us that human relating, whether at the personal level or at the geo-political, is a complicated thing. My reading of history, I’m sad to say, does teach that all manner of wishful thinking and lyrical pacifism and inspired speechmaking are not going to redraw the map of the world, or remake the human psyche. We may be bound in a mystic body of Oneness, as many of us believe; we may be but drops of rain in a great cosmic sea. But knowing where my raindrop ends and yours begins may well be neigh impossible at times, and is always a constant struggle.

“Forgive and forget,” the old saying goes: another impossibility for us mortal humans. Because we don’t forget, nor should we. The only way to “forget” the pain another has caused us (or that we have caused) is to live in denial about it; to stuff it deep down inside; to pretend it never existed. That, we know well, just causes greater problems later on.

Our human challenge is not to “forgive and forget”. It is to remember—and yet to forgive, still. Not to deny that we have experienced pain or injustice; but to acknowledge the tortured past (to remember it), but then to find some way, somehow, to move beyond it, and even to join our enemies on the bridge of shared pain, toward a future that will in some ways, somehow, transcend what the past has wrought. Daring to forgive another—or daring to ask forgiveness of another— is like piling flowers on the graves of our former enemies. It is a profound acknowledgement of our deeper, shared humanity. It is a truly arduous human exertion, and that it happens at all (and it does) is almost a miracle. But to remember and not forgive—not to seek, some way, somehow, to forgive-- is to imprison ourselves in our rage, our grief, and our despair. Sadly, that is all too often the choice that we human ones (and our leaders) choose to take.

A Tibetan Buddhist story talks about two monks who meet each again after being imprisoned for many years, and tortured by their captors. “Have you forgiven them yet?” the first monk asks the other. “No!” the other replies. “I will never forgive them for what they did to me. Never! Never!” And the first answers, simply: “Well, I guess they still have you in prison then, don’t they?” Or, as an old Middle Eastern proverb reminds us: “If you seek revenge, then dig two graves: one for your enemy, and another for yourself.”
Too often, we find ourselves mired in the same old cycle of revenge and retribution. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi once said.

“War is hell,” said General Sherman (one of the most ruthless and unflinching military commanders in American history). “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation,” he went on.  Or, as E.L. Doctorow wrote in The March, his novel about Sherman and the closing days of the American Civil War: “Nothing was worse in war than the grief of mothers.”

The death and destruction of war do not differentiate between good and evil, between aggressor and victim. German mothers in Dresden grieved for their dead and dying children as hauntingly as Jewish mothers at Birkenau, or Japanese mothers at Hiroshima, or American mothers receiving that long-dreaded telegram from the Department of War.

When we remember, we need to hear all of their cries, not just those of the ones closest to us or most like us. When we remember, we need to take in the whole of human experience, the noble and the evil-- within others, and within ourselves.

War is never less than the ultimate human tragedy, and we have a responsibility, and our leaders have a responsibility, to avoid going to war, until every honorable alternative has been sought and struggled over and exhausted. We all have both powers of good and evil within us, Sirius Black tells Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix; the question is which one we act upon. Then later, as Harry is locked in battle with the evil Voldemort, all of the good he has ever known flashes in his mind: the love of his mother and father; the caring of his teachers and friends; the goodness he has experienced time and again at the hands of others; the goodness writ deep at the very heart of existence. Then, he knows, that this is why he fights; for these things, for love and goodness and friendship—not for power or for glory or control. Not to fight, then, in this situation, would be to turn his back on the very truth of existence. So it was Gandhi, too, who once reminded us that sometimes, when the choice is between violence and cowardice, we must choose to fight. There are, in this world of ours, human creations so irrational and evil that they need to be confronted directly, and that violence must be met with violence.

But my faith still cries out to me that “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” We approach closest to the Divine when we put aside the man-made weapons of war, and take up the soul-inspired tools of peace.

The best way to remember those who have died in times of war is not by glorifying war, but by counting honestly its cost; not by glossing over its evil, but by facing it honestly. We do this neither by surrendering our values, nor by capitulating in the face of tyranny, nor by retreating back into isolation. We do it by seeking to become living models of reconciliation and forgiveness and new beginnings.

For 27 years, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town by the government of his country, South Africa. If ever there was a person who should have felt bitter and resentful and full of hatred, it was he. But when Mandela was finally released from jail in 1990, he never expressed any bitterness. When he became South Africa’s president in 1994, he never sought revenge.

“I always knew that deep down in every human heart there is mercy and generosity,” Mandela wrote after his release. “No one is born hating another person… [If] people must learn to hate, [then] they can be taught to love [as well]… Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.”

It is to kindling those glimmers of humanity (or are they divinity?) in one another that the study of history should call us. As Vaclav Havel (another former prisoner who became president) put it: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humility and in human responsibility."

The heart of Memorial Day lies in our hope that the sacrifices which others have made were not senseless or futile or devoid of meaning—but that they stood for something; that they were with meaning. What that meaning was—what it will be—depends on us.

[The young dead soldiers] say,
Whether our lives, and our deaths were for peace and a new hope
Or for nothing
We cannot say.
It is you who must say this.
They say,
We leave you our deaths,
Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say,
we have died,
Remember us.

{Archibald Macleish}

One morning in the summer of 1998, Elizabeth and I drove into the German Hinterland to visit Bermersheim, a little village on the edge of the Rhineland where St. Hildegard of Bingen had been born 900 years before. It wasn’t easy, but we finally found the little village and the little church, where they say, the great Oracle of the Rhine had been brought, the youngest of 10 children, to be baptized in the year 1098.

Just behind the church are vineyards, and nestled before the vineyards, there is a small graveyard, one of the best-maintained and cared-for cemeteries I have ever seen. Waiting for the woman to come and bring the key to open the church to let us in, we wandered among the headstones; they were all lovely examples of expert stonework.

At the back of the cemetery, in the very shadow of the unbounded vineyards, there was a slightly larger monument, of granite I think. Over it hung a stone canopy, and the words on it read (in German, of course), “We remember our dead.” There were two tablets: one marked “1914-1919”; the other “1939-1945”; on each were listed several score of names.

These were men who had been killed in Germany’s wars of the past century. Wars in which Germany had been, certainly, the aggressor. Wars in which Germany had been our nation’s bitter enemy.

At first, I felt a little angry, or at least defensive, at seeing these names remembered here, as though as heroes. But then, I realized that these men of Bermersheim were not being idolized and hailed as soldiers of Kaiser or Fuhrer. They were simply being remembered, as sons and husbands and brothers and neighbors. I thought that there seemed an awful lot of names for a village so small.

So, as the warm sun shone down upon us, and as an endless blue sky rose above us, and as small birds sang, and as the sweet scent of grapevine freshened the air, I saw how right it is to remember those we love. For our lives are bound with theirs in an indivisible garment of destiny. The field of memory and the field of hope, together, form an indivisible human landscape, a sacred realm of time and space we all share together.

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