26 May 2014

Remembering the Dead

I find Memorial Day complicated: my maternal grandfather fought for the wrong side.

My mother grew up, and I was born, in Germany. For her, there is only "the war" -- World War II, which left her family refugees, her father killed in action. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm glad he didn't survive the conflict and I'm glad I never had to meet him.

The story is he served in a tank unit. The story is he was a mechanic. The story is he was a common soldier. The story is he was a lieutenant. A photo shows a uniform with the death's-head insignia. The story is he was wounded and sent home, yet chose to return to combat. Twice.

Some day, I will go into the archives and find out what facts may have survived. I want to know; I don't want to know.

It's small comfort that my other grandfather served in the US merchant marine in that same war, or that my father and several of his relatives served the US military, and even, several generations back, the Union army.

Today, we're exhorted to remember those killed in action for the United States. World War II was surely a just war; the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows much else about the conflict. Yet the US did much that was unjust in that war, interning people of Japanese descent, refusing entry to Jewish refugees, discriminating against African-Americans who were drafted or volunteered to serve.

The wars we have fought since then are more difficult to justify. Yet American soldiers die, or they return alive but wounded in body and soul. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Returning veterans are refused the care they need to re-enter society as successfully functioning civilians, even allowed to die for lack of medical care.

Today's parades, in honoring the veterans and the fallen, seem also to celebrate war itself. We need to find a more nuanced way to remember the past, and acknowledge the realities of the present. We need to learn to seek peace and pursue it.