My father is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He did multiple tours – he signed up for them. And he received many medals for his service. He even turned down a Purple Heart that he didn’t feel he deserved (he stubbed and broke his toe while running for cover during an air raid – not, in his mind, much valor in a broken drunk trot across base).
He went on to serve in the military for another 20 years, retiring at the ripe old age of 38.
Growing up, our summers consisted of visits to war memorials that are peppered across Europe. Our week-ends included side-trips to famous war sites of WWI and WWII. I grew up immersed in these wars, reminded every day by our cranky old neighbor who wouldn’t let us play with his grandchildren because we were American and he had been a member of the SS. Our other neighbors, his relations, had family in the French Resistance. We were invited to play with their children all the time. Suffice to say, i learned French better than i ever learned German.
But this isn’t about my playdates as a child, or holidays with families. This is about war, more generally.
My father is a living memorial to war. He was burned and nearly died in Vietnam. A vehicle was sent back on base rigged with a bomb that exploded in his face as he worked on it. He rolled in a patch of oil, thinking it was mud, and burned a very large portion of his body. It was about this time that the military had decided to stop using opioid-based pain meds because so many young men were returning to the States addicted. His pain was treated with aspirin. They scrubbed the skin off his body every day to keep from infecting and scarring. He drank half a beer twice a day to keep his kidneys clean. He remembers screaming in pain a lot.
These are the stories that i grew up with. This is how war is memorialized in my mind.
My father returned for two more tours.
My father also volunteered to do helicopter strafing runs – he sat on his flak jacket to keep from getting a bullet up his bum while he shot a machine gun blindly into the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone. He says his eyes were closed all the time – he doesn’t know.
But he does.
My father offers two sides to every story. He always has. I was raised, by him, to be both a fierce fighter and a pacifist. He gave me my first copy of the Communist Manifesto when i was 10. He taught me to be proud of IRA (my mother is Irish), to listen to the story behind the PLO, to understand that sometimes peace doesn’t win struggle. I was signed up for JROTC while in high school – i learned to fly helicopters, jets, and refueling planes. I learned to spin a rifle. I did the color guard ceremony at Verdun one Memorial Day. I dreamt of being the first female F-16 pilot (someone beat me to it).
But i also watched my father struggle with PTSD and depression. I watched him cry in war films. I heard the pain in his voice when he would recount war stories. He still cries when he speaks about the war. And he speaks about it often. He lost many friends, but he lost much much more. War, he told me, doesn’t just kill people. And the war he fought in was a waste of 1000′s of lives. There is a bitterness that trails along with his sorrow – a bitterness of the classed and raced nature of those that actually do the warring, a bitterness at the thoughtlessness with which those in power send young men to die and to kill. A bitterness over the waste that was the Vietnam War.
We still talk about war and peace. We agree on the larger philosophical points about the need for peace, but we struggle to find common ground when it comes to the actual activity of war. Enemies lurk in the recesses of my father’s mind and in the reality of his daily existence. He can very quickly return to a mindset of war, wars where no one, not even children, are true civilians. Anyone can throw a bomb into the back of a truck.
So it is that war is truly memorialized. It is memorialized in the very bodies of those that have lived through war. It is memorialized in their families. It is memorialized in pride and pain, in righteousness and anguish. For many people, Memorial Day is a a single day of remembrance, to honor those who have fought, those who have died. For others, it is simply a blessed day when people stop to thank them for living in remembrance every day.