Memorial Day Weekend is when I write a column remembering Harlan Miller. Mr. Miller died at an old age, an impoverished hermit with no family other than his church. He left his estate to it, and named the rector his executor. The property on which his shack stood is now the site of a Habitat for Humanity home. There wasn’t much else.
Memorial Day remembers those who died in military service. It should be a day of solemn reflection on the sinful inhumanity of war, and the grievous waste of young lives who were sent into battle. Harlan didn’t die in battle. He was blown to bits in North Africa, survived, spent years in the hospital, and was left to live out his days earning his living with odd jobs, never having a career, poor, and alone. Not all those who died in battle are buried in graves marked by rows of white crosses. Many, like Harlan, died in pieces, not all at once. They came home with some part of them dead, some part of their future dead, some part of their soul dead, some part of their hopes and dreams dead, some part of their humanity dead. Death comes to us all, but these kinds of death cruelly haunt and hurt the partly living. We can give them parades and thank them for their service. We can acclaim them heroes, and pretend they are protectors of our freedom. Can we restore what has been killed?
War has been glamorized to excess in every generation. Homer’s Iliad, stories in the Hebrew scriptures, Medieval tales of gallantry, the heroics of Nelson, Wellington, Washington, Lee and Grant, they all glamorize war, romanticize it, and entice the young to pursue it. I wonder if it has to do with a collective subconsciousness that is terrified to admit to moral responsibility for the brutal immorality of war, and so recasts its stories as heroically righteous. Otherwise the burden of guilt would be too great for us to bear.
Americans are particularly drawn to WWII, the Good War fought by the Greatest Generation; I admit to being among them. Of all wars, this was the one that was morally righteous. Those who died did not die in vain. Heroes were made, and myths have endured to lift the war years to the apogee of everything the United States stands for. We tend to overlook the Harlans of the era who came home partly dead, living out their years partly alive. With all good intentions, and genuine patriotic sincerity, we say of the dead that they died to protect us, and of the veterans we say they served and fought for our freedom. And so they did.
That was WWII. There are no other good wars in our history. There have been wars of some justification: the American revolution, WWI, the Civil War perhaps, even Korea. Each had at least something to do with the defense of democracy, freedom, and the security of the United States. We have now been engaged in decades of undeclared war spread across the face of the globe. None of them can be fully justified no matter how just war theory is tortured to make them seem so. With Orwellian duplicity we send young men and women to kill and be killed, promising that they are doing the right thing for God and country. As we should, we honor returning veterans for their service, then dishonor that service by claiming it was for the protection of our freedoms, when it was really to salve political egos, enhance the economic profitability of a few, or both.
Emerging from it have been thousands of Harlan Millers. They volunteered. It was their patriotic duty. It promised adventure. It was their best chance for a future life. Gallantry and respect would be theirs. They returned partly dead, not sure how to thrive in a civilian world in which their war was but a forgettable nightly news clip unrelated to the daily lives of ordinary people. We’re not heartless. We’re now more aware of PTSD, and what it has done to too many veterans. We’re mostly united in trying to do something about it. We’re not united about doing anything to stop the undeclared wars. The majority of us have been sold on the idea that, bad as they are, they are for our own good, and the eventual good of the people in whose lands they are conducted. It is Orwellian.
This Memorial Day weekend maybe we could do more than picnic and parade. Maybe we could take a few moments to reflect on our responsibility for the violent sinfulness of the world we have created, and for what?
“Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your will. Guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquillity your dominion may increase until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP 258)