Editor’s note: MinnPost writer David Hawley was drafted in 1969, served two years in the Army and is a disabled veteran. His father, a pacifist, was a conscientious objector during World War II. During the Vietnam era, his older brother was a medic in the Army Reserve and his younger brother was a conscientious objector.
Like many older veterans, my thoughts on Memorial Day turn to the men I knew who lost so much of their lives.
A few weeks ago, I came across a box of old letters and photographs that had wound up in a basement file cabinet with other things that had been tossed there during some unsuccessful effort to organize the house. As I was thumbing through the pictures, I stopped cold. There it was, a black-and-white of a buddy, taken in a barracks at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the spring of 1970.
Wearing a T-shirt, fatigue pants and dog tags, he was grinning for the camera from the opposite side of a top bunk, in the last year of his life.
It has been said that old soldiers never die. But young ones always have, in the millions. And the conventional sentiment is that they sacrificed their lives for their country. But the truth is, their lives were taken, often in ways too gruesome to contemplate.
My father was a pacifist, a conscientious objector during World War II who later became a clergyman. Surprisingly, the first inkling I had of his inner moral core occurred on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Limited ration of carefree days
To be frank, the assassination annoyed me. In 1963 I was well into my senior year in high school and the world was my oyster — a seemingly endless series of weekend dates, parties, and make-out sessions, tempered by the faint sense that I was using up a limited ration of carefree days. My self-involvement extended even to the assassination of a president: It was spoiling one of the weekends that were in short supply.
As my family sat down to dinner, some six hours or so after the president had been cut down, my grim-faced father glared the table into silence.”When something like this happens,” he began, pausing to make sure his words were being heeded before starting over:
“When something like this happens, this country goes to war,” he said.
My younger brother and I stared at our plates, careful not to glance at each other lest we roll our eyes or smirk. Dad was being melodramatic again — which, after all, is part of the arsenal of a preacher. This time, however, he waited for some kind of response: a look, a comment, a request for explanation … anything. Getting none, he abruptly left the table.
It was later that I realized that the kind of “something” my father was talking about related to the big event of his youth: Pearl Harbor. A generation earlier, it would have been the sinking of the Lusitania. Before that, the Battleship Maine. Or Fort Sumter. Or Lexington and Concord. Every war has its “something.”
Fearing the worst for his sons
As my father looked across the table, he must have been fearing the worst for his sons: One 16, one 17, one 19 and away at college. We were perfect cannon-fodder.
Of course, he didn’t know — none of us knew — that the lives of his three sons would be impacted a few years later by a war on the other side of the world, in Vietnam.
Flash forward to Sept. 11, 2001:
I was taking my wife and in-laws on a tour of the Masonic Home in Bloomington that morning, arriving there at 8 a.m. My father-in-law, a disabled veteran of World War II, and his wife were visiting us from Chicago. It was an unhappy visit, for they had begun the process of giving up their home and moving to a place where their children could look after them.
We were walking down a corridor in an assisted-living wing when we turned a corner and found ourselves in a little TV lounge. A half-dozen elderly residents were sitting there, quietly watching the televised pictures of the World Trade Center’s smoldering twin towers.
An eerie calm — and an agreement
I was struck then — and now — by the eerie calm. The folks sitting in their retirement-home lounge were sadly serene. One of the men finally commented: “Looks like we’re going to be in another war,” he said and there were murmurs of agreement.
As we drove home, I remembered my father’s grim face at the dinner table in 1963. And I thought about my own son, then 17 at the start of his senior year in high school, with the world as his oyster.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson ramped up support for the American entrance into World War I by calling it “the war to end all wars.” This prompted the poet and philosopher George Santayana to respond: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Santayana, of course, was the author of that famous statement that is so often quoted and misquoted: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’d call that optimism, because it sometimes seems more likely that we remember the past and go right on repeating it.
After my father died in 1999, I found one of his notebooks among the boxes of things stored in his basement. Both of my parents compiled journals, often writing down poems or quotations, so I’m not sure if this is what my father composed or if it’s something he read that inspired him. But here is what he had written:
“The shortest verse in the Bible is just two words: ‘Jesus wept.’ They have been called the saddest words ever written. But that was before someone wrote down the justification of a moral war.”