Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

The cover of my copy of the Chicago Tribune today showed a picture of an elderly woman kneeling by American flags, her face contorted as she started to weep. "I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW THAT WE PAID THE PRICE" was the headline above the picture, and below it a caption explaining that this was Jackie Metzger, who was "planting flags at veterans' grave sites in Kankakee Memorial Gardens on Friday as she remembers how she heard the news that her 32-year-old son, Jonathan, had been killed in Afghanistan." Not far along in the accompanying article, Jim Frazier was quoted, Mr. Frazier being a man "whose 24-year-old son, Jacob, was an Air Force staff sergeant who was killed in Afghanistan in 2003." Mr. Frazier said, "It's not Veterans Day. It's not National Flag Day. It's Memorial Day...At least take a moment to pause and reflect."

I don't think that I did. Not for most of the day, at least. I had thought about attending the annual Memorial Parade downtown, this year led by CIA director and former general David Petreaus (I've never been to a Memorial Day Parade anywhere, not that I can remember) but instead I went to a brunch at a friend's house, and sat on a porch and laughed for a few hours. When I came home, I felt that I owed somebody something, and wound up reading some articles about civilians killed by the US military, by mistake, in Afghanistan, and drone strikes in Pakistan, and a bit of an interview with Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and current Director of Defense, in which he was asked about civilian casualties in those countries and said, "First and foremost, I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal. [He was talking about drones.] Number two, what is our responsibility here? Our responsibility is to defend and protect the United States of America...We have got to defend the United States of America. That's our first responsibility. And using the operations that we have, using the systems that we have, using the weapons that we have, is absolutely essential to our ability to defend Americans. That's what counts, and that's what we're doing."

Something came to mind. The previous week, I had attended an anti-war rally where several dozen former soldiers had thrown back the medals they had been awarded after their service in recent wars. Each one had a chance to give a few remarks to the crowd before doing so, and some had been direct, and others had been petulant, or angry, and I remember one who sounded very sad and said, "Out of respect for the Iraqi and Afghan people, I'm giving these medals back. I'm sorry." And they had thrown the medals behind the stage, into a tree and grass filled partition and in the direction of the McCormick Center, which was where the leaders of the nations forming NATO were meeting, and where they were hashing out what the future of the NATO-led war in Afghanistan would look like. This had all taken place before the rally had ended, when an element of the crowd had started locking horns with the hundreds of assembled police, resulting in - and I'm not sure who started what - a skirmish and the stabbing of one officer, and the bludgeoning of some protesters, and dramatic photos, and the relative eradication of the rally's thesis from the ensuing media reports, which (at least as far as I could tell) focused largely on the ways in which the police had effectively diffused a dangerous situation. I had been about a block away from the action, but as the crowd began to surge around me in a confused, tightening mass, I had tried to repress panic and worked my way out of it and left.

What I wondered at the time, though, was what had happened to the medals. Had someone picked them up later? Had they been swept up by street cleaners? Or perhaps they had been abandoned and forgotten. In my mind, they still dangled from tree branches and littered the ground. Now, a week later, I went back to see if anything was left.

The corner, without the stage and throngs and air of importance, had resumed its normal nature, which was an intersection with a dry cleaners ("Any item dry cleaned for $2.25"), and a Papa John's pizza place, and a new condo building named The Lux from whose balconies intrigued onlookers had safely watched the aforementioned events. I started walking around the median, sifting through the plants. After a few passes, all I had found was trash. A man pulled up in his car and asked for directors to the freeway. An ambulance passed, sirens on.

After about ten minutes more, I had found one relevant thing, which was a dirty handkerchief with the words "Love Is Our Weapon" on it. It seemed like something someone attending a peace rally would have left behind, but I couldn't know for sure. Somebody stopped their car at the red light and tossed an empty bottle out of the window and lit a cigarette and drove off. Disappointed, I checked my phone. A friend from college, a veteran who had served two tours of duty in Iraq, had called. I had missed it.

I searched again, but there was nothing to find. It was as if the rally had never happened. I imagined city sanitation workers combing the area for war medals, and wondered if they had handled them reverently (maybe even kept them) or with disregard. I was close to leaving when I spotted a piece of metal on the cement. It was part of a pin, the part used to clip it to clothing. Or to a uniform. I bent down and turned it over. It was bent and flattened, like it had been stepped on. Words had been pressed into it. They were these:


When I got home, I called my friend, the vet. We chatted for a while about nothing in particular, skirting an unspoken issue. Then he asked me how my Memorial Day was. I didn't have too much to tell him, but he had a few things to tell me. He said that he had visited a war memorial in Boston, where he is a student, along with his son and wife. There, they had looked out at a field covered with 33,000 American flags representing the 33,000 citizens of Massachusetts who had died in the nation's wars, from the Revolutionary War through the present. There were a few kids in their 20s smoking pot by the memorial, and my friend told me he had walked up to them and asked them politely if they could do that somewhere else. They had agreed. He said it had felt good to be there with his family. He said that he had felt appreciative.

He told me about some of the things he had been reading, work analyzing the relationship between the military and civilians in America today. He read to me from a review of a book. "With the United States more or less permanently at war," the review said, "Americans profess unstinting admiration for those serving in uniform. Yet the gap between soldier and society is wider than at any time in our history." There was more:
In ­places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still fights ambiguous no‑win wars in pursuit of elusive objectives. Yet in contrast to the reaction to Vietnam, the public finds these conflicts tolerable. Not required to serve or to sacrifice (or even to cover the costs incurred), Americans have effectively off-loaded responsibility for national security onto a small warrior elite, whose members..."are embraced as heroes, even as we do not really know them."
He stopped reading and told me that he thought there was something there, something that could be turned into a movement of some kind, something that could touch many aspects of American life, redefining what the average citizen took for granted, and what they were willing to give of themselves, and how connected they were to what their country did, within its borders and around the world.

Another way to put it: what price they were willing to pay.

 The median with the McCormick Center in the background

The handkerchief


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