War is no longer declared
Just continued. The unheard-of
Has become the quotidian.
Those words were written more than fifty years ago in postwar Germany by Ingeborg Bachmann and eloquently translated by Eavan Boland in her anthology After Every War. On this Memorial Day the truth of those lines is more evident than ever before. War, endless war, continues year after year, erupting in one country after another like a malignant plague.
Within the last few days Palmyra, an ancient trading city in Syria, was captured by ISIS forces. The magnificent centuries-old monuments are expected to be destroyed by troops who consider the preservation of them a form of idolatry. Perhaps religious feelings are at the heart of the destruction, but watching videos of teenage soldiers swinging hammers ruthlessly
at stone carvings makes me wonder whether some of the destruction isn’t fueled as much by youthful exuberance as by heartfelt belief. I can’t help wondering whether some of these men may not regret the destruction as they grow older and slowly learn to appreciate the value of the past as well as the fever of the present.
But the real tragedy of war isn’t the destruction of monuments or art or even homes and hospitals but of people. There are no victimless wars. Every drone that explodes in the Middle East kills someone; every bomb dropped during World War II destroyed life as well as buildings; every shot fired from the trenches in World War I and every volley of rifle fire during the Civil War were intended to kill and maim soldiers and to leave children fatherless and families bereft.
Every war that has ever been fought has been a failure—a failure of people to use their human ability to speak and communicate to resolve differences. It is only when people give up the very traits that make them human that they need to turn to war.
But Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died as victims of people’s inability to act as humans. For most of our history the fighting forces that were remembered on Memorial Day were all men—the soldiers, sailors, and marines who fought in America’s early wars. Now, of course, women as well as men serve in all branches of the Armed Forces, so today we should remember the first American woman killed in combat—Lori Piestewa, who was killed in combat. Lori Piestewa was a member of the Hopi tribe and lived on a Hopi reservation in Arizona with her family before she left to serve in the military. Her father had served in Vietnam and her grandfather in World War II, as so many men of the Hopi tribe have served over the years. She left two young children, who by now are probably well aware that the war in which their mother served and died has not yet ended. Perhaps when they are grown they too will serve in one of our endless wars. It certainly seems as though there will be opportunities for that.
Peace is as far from us as it has ever been. So on this Memorial Day, all we can do is remember those who have died and will never again see the world that we, the living, are still enjoying. Lori Piestewa will never again feel the harsh Arizona sun or the see a sandy Arizona landscape.
The sadness in the loss of life, the end of an opportunity to see the world, was expressed almost 100 years ago by a young poet, Francis Ledwidge, who died in World War I. He was writing about Thomas McDonagh, a man executed during the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. This lament serves well as a Memorial Day tribute to all those who died in all of our wars and will never again see our beautiful earth.
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky where he is lain
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain.
Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.