Today is Veterans Day. It’s a quiet Sunday morning as I write, but quieter still for those who’ve given their lives in supreme sacrifice to their country. Not so for the many maimed physically and psychologically by war who must live daily with its ravages.
I think more recently of Iraq and Afghanistan, those strange sounding names of places so far away most of us scarcely knew they existed, save a chance photo spread in National Geographic while waiting in a doctor’s office. Places now as familiar as weekday names.
Something intrudes, one of those ghosts that inevitably haunt heavy thinking. It takes shape in a poem I’ve read and taught for so many years to young adults on a college campus: Robert Lowell’s poignant “For the Union Dead,” reminiscing the decline in enthusiasm for any cause, military, political or otherwise:
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse…
The stone statues of the abstract Union soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year__
wasp-wasted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns. . .
There are no statues for the last war here:
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the”Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast.
. . .
giant finned cars nose forward ;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
A decade ago I visited our war dead at Colleville-Sur-Mer, where the elevated resting place of our Normandy heroes overlooks that once bloodied Omaha Beach. Ten thousand, row upon row, their graves facing Westward to their homeland, their life threads severed early. They would not see America again or wed or become parents or enjoy the rarity of a warm November day. Mortality is our collective lot, but for these, the shades were drawn early.
12 p.m, and the malls have just opened. Veterans Day, like Memorial Day, now serves as commercial fodder, or like the Mosler Safe in a culture that’s found new servitude in the material quest.
Nixon ended the draft back in 1971. So now it’s become easier to forget those who defend, bleed and die for us. I was a young fellow, a former veteran, during the Vietnam era of national division over a far-off war, spilling over into public defiance and, sometimes, violence at home. Vietnam was a very long war. Until Afghanistan. Where are today’s protestors? How much easier to rent surrogates.
It’s a beautiful fall day, an Indian Summer day, the autumn maples ripe in their red dress. The malls will do well.