Friday, May 25, 2007

Flying a flag of remembrance

Memorial Day. As a kid, war seemed long ago and far away. World War II and Korea were ancient history for me, born in the late 1950s. Then the tumult of Vietnam swept the country. The older brothers of my peers got drafted and sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia. The death and destruction there was distant, detached. And Vietnam, for me and so many young people of that era, was all about resistance. Resisting the draft, resisting the yoke our parents' generation put on us to fight a war that made no sense, resisting "the establishment."

Honoring our war dead at that time did not occur to many people my age. The men who donned a military uniform and went off to fight in Vietnam, the 58,000 of them who were killed there — they deserved pity, perhaps, for being exploited that way. But honor? My generation was too caught up in the frenzy of protest to even consider honoring those men and women who lost their lives in that awful war.

Vietnam so complicated things for young people of the 1970s. Our parents and grandparents fought wars that mattered. Our nation seemed much more clearly on the side of what was right back then. Vietnam, on the other hand, was pointless — fighting to preserve the rule of one horrible dictator versus another, protecting Southeast Asia from the spread of communism, and thereby protecting democracy throughout the world. The threat didn't seem real. The arguments shallow. And our government lied. Repeatedly. Tens of thousands died. For what? The distrust for government bred in my heart during those formative years of my life remains with me to this day.

So I was never one to observe Memorial Day. It seemed somehow a celebration of war. I couldn't separate honoring the soldiers who gave their lives from honoring the war that claimed them. And war, the war I knew (albeit, gratefully, from afar) was no cause for honor.

War is nothing to celebrate. War rarely accomplishes anything. War breeds more hatred, more violence, more war. More destruction and death.

There are loud echoes of Vietnam in Iraq: wars fought under false pretenses, government leaders lying, the true purpose of battle, and its efficacy, justifiably questioned.

But those of us opposed to the present war should not make the same mistakes we made during Vietnam. We must not get the matter of honoring the men and women who sacrificed their lives in this war tangled up in our opposition to it. They answered a call — whether patriotic or economic. They put on a uniform. They went into battle in service to their country, and died. Honoring that sacrifice is not the same as honoring the war that claimed them, or honoring the war's purpose, or its perpetrators.

When I fly the flag on Monday, it won't be an expression of support for the war in Iraq, or solidarity with the administration's purpose or plan for this ill-conceived battle. It will be to remember, acknowledge and respect the lives cut short — all lives — by the insanity of war — all wars. It will be an expression of grief, not glory. It will be flown in the hope that by remembering, truly remembering, the real costs of war, we will diminish the opportunity for war in the future.

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