A FEW YEARS BACK, my wife and I made our annual visit to the state fair, and having not been to a rodeo in our twenty-plus years of marriage, decided to partake in the one offered that day at Cal-Expo. While the opening event of having a half dozen rodeo ponies bullied and wrestled off their fours by cowboys seemed appalling – especially as the men mounted the horses and paraded around the ring as if they were the victors of something – what was to follow was worse. And it wasn’t an act of animal cruelty.
We obliged, leaving the venue, not the country.
MEMORIAL DAY, 2008: We don’t participate in holiday sales and though we sometimes barbecue in the back yard, Memorial Day seems like a holiday that is more or less a freebie. We get the day off, but we choose not to recognize why.
This day, however, in light of those fighting and dying at the behest of our government, it seemed well past time for us to participate in a Memorial Day Service at a local cemetery. To be sure, the view of the rolling grounds where nearly every marker held a small American flag was moving to the point that I was glad I had come. Those resting beneath my feet had given their last full measure. It was long past time that I should honor what they had given up in order for the likes of me to opine what is to follow here.
The military band played. A soloist performed the National Anthem flawlessly and not as if it were a jazz, blues, rock, or country composition. A light breeze rippled the colors. The patriotism that I generally hide under a bushel, swelled.
The Adjutant General of the California National Guard spoke of experiences in several theatres and of the historic and heroic efforts men (mainly men) had offered in our country’s short and storied history. From Lexington and Concord, through Gettysburg and Flanders and Iwo Jima and DaNang; to Afganistan and Iraq. With each illustration he spoke of bravery, patriotism, love of country and love of God. He told us that the dead had no voices but still needed to be heard.
The tenor again sang: God Bless America followed by The Battle Hymn of the Republic:
A Vietnam-era chaplain vet offered the invocation, thanking us and calling on us to honor those whose devotion to country and devotion to God prompted heroic actions so that all of us could breath free. He spoke of several incidents in that theatre that had touched him. One story was of a dead Viet Cong soldier he and his squadron found. As they cleared the deceased’s pockets, the chaplain came across a picture of the dead man with his wife and two young daughters – and a crucifix. At once the chaplain fell to his knees and began digging a grave for this enemy brother. When the squadron commander said, there wasn’t time, that we needed to move on, the chaplain defied his commander and said, “You move on without me. I must offer this man a proper burial.” Within moments, his comrades joined in the effort and a Christian service was offered this Communist enemy.
AT SOME POINT I felt as if I did not belong. I was at the rodeo, again, but the clown had thrown off his clown garb and taken on a military uniform. And with it, he’d wrestled control of this occasion from the dead we were to honor. We were not honoring all those who gave their last full measure. We were honoring only people like us who gave their last full measure. The voices of the living, this day, were talking more about our nation trusting in God, our service people being devoted to God and our lives being somehow less than American if we did not embrace God as well as country. I was overcome with the question: Are the only dead worth honoring our dead, and oh, by the way, their dead, if they happened to have a Christian symbol on their remains?
As twenty-one guns saluted and Taps was rendered off in the distance, my eyes filled with tears. My patriotism, had welled, just a bit, but my tears were for the stilled voices of those service men and women who may have believed or, perhaps, now understand:
- All soldiers who die in combat are dead; doesn’t matter what they believed or where they came from.
- Families grieve for war dead regardless of their religious beliefs; regardless of their nationality.
- A just God does not side in times of war.
- A just God does not select which dead soldier was the righteous one.
- Belief in a just God – or any god for that matter – does not justify war.
- Fighting until peace is attained is moronic for peace is attained only when the fighting stops; however…
- …a precious peace has been attained by those who lay at our feet this day on which we honor them.
ON THAT DAY I ARRIVED AT THREE SIMPLE THINGS (admitting that, maybe, I was already there):
- We must honor those who gave their last full measure, whether they are Christian or believe in some other code; whether they died fighting for our country or their own.
- To truly memorialize those who have given their last full measure, our super-human efforts must happen before a conflict erupts, so that super-human efforts don’t need to happen in the theatre of war.
- On any Memorial Day, to truly honor them, we must listen to the stilled voices of the war dead and not our own. We must listen long. Listen hard. And listen until we, like they, understand the meaning of the phrase "last full measure.”
© 2008, 2011
Church of the Open Road Press