Tuesday, February 15, 2005

War And Its Cost


The caption that appeared with the above Associated Press photo states:

"Pearl Harbor survivor Houston James of Dallas embraces Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Graunke Jr. during a Veterans Day commemoration in Dallas. Graunke lost a hand, a leg and and eye when he defused a bomb in Iraq last year." (Thanks to Blackfive.)
It is difficult to know what to say about a photo that is worth so many thousands of words all by itself.

Maybe some of you are like me. I have a 19 year-old son who's interested in military service, and in my church I have worked for about eight years now with boys and young men aged 12 to 18. Perhaps that is why I find myself, daily, reflecting deeply on the sacrifices of young servicemen and women and their families who serve in the military. Those young people are just like the ones I work with and worry about all the time, and the exact age of my own son.

When we hear of the deaths of Americans cut down literally in the bloom of youth, and that is heart-wrenching and sobering enough; but the sacrifices made are greater and more widespread. Do we think as often as we should of the burdens of others "who have borne the battle?" I'm thinking now of the daily worry of the parents and loved ones at home; the irreversible consequences to the 25,000 wounded; the soldiers' lost and irretrievable time with their own little children.

It is tempting to become cynical and even sanctimonious about such matters. My highest admiration is for those who are realistic, seeing both the high purposes to which our servicemen are called, but also never forgetting the price that is paid.

In my own efforts to keep that realistic balance, I've found the works of Western poets to be helpful. Here's a famous one from Wilfred Owen:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The final lines are from Horace, who wrote "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori [It is sweet and proper to die for one's country]." Owen uses them, of course, ironically.

A different, less cynical perspective appears in this, my favorite poem about war:

In Flanders Fields

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

That one, "In Flanders Fields," is by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician who served in World War I. McCrae was no stranger to the real suffering of soldiers wounded in battle. According to the Arlington National Cemetery web site:

As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae, who had joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto, had spent seventeen days treating injured men -- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans -- in the Ypres salient.

It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae later wrote of it:

"I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."

The story behind McCrae's poem is a must-read. It is here.

Sherman was right when he said "war is hell." I am grateful to live in a democracy, where the "dog of war" is chained. Ideally, in a democracy the decision to go to war is made only after considerable, passionate debate and is always subject to the oversight of the people.

I am also grateful beyond words to those who serve. May we all support them, before, during, and after the battle; and may God bless them.


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