Sunday, May 27, 2007

what does it mean to "die for your country"?

My dad served 2 tours of duty in the vietnam war. At age 18 he tore up his draft notice for the U.S. Army and went down to talk to the Air Force recruiter. He's definitely a man with a high practical intelligence, and he was, I think, considering attrition rate comparisons between the services. He went on to work for the U.S. air force for twenty years, retiring in 1987. After a big argument on mother's day, he called and left a message on my cell phone in which he said in a tone of great sorrow and sincere regret "Son, I'm sorry that you are ashamed of me because of my service in the U.S. military."

That was wrenching to hear. The last thing I want to communicate to my dad is that I'm ashamed of him. He's a great guy, and from my current 32 year old frame of reference, I can see that he did worse than some but better than most in his role as a father.

The memorial day holiday tomorrow has really set me to thinking this year. In years past, I've pretty much ingnored the holiday. I asked a barista today while she was preparing my (fair trade) coffee "What is Memorial Day about anyway?". She replied "ummm, I dunno--something about the military?" The two older people behind me in line looked chagrined and charged "Aha--a product of Seattle Public Schools!". My friend Julie, who preached earlier today about Pentecost, said that older members of her church wished she had mentioned or preached on memorial day. Is it a generational thing?

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All this had led me to this question: Has the meaning of "Die for America" changed over the years? Has it become less significant, or more significant? Has the meaning of "America" changed? Memorial Day finds it's roots in both the North and the South in the American Civil War taking time in May to remember the War Dead. It became a national holiday much later, after World War II, as a nation chose to remember it's staggering losses in that enormous conflict.

The soldiers in the american civil war were fighting, I guess, for preserving the union, or a way of life, or freedom, or at some level against slavery. The soldiers in World War II were fighting against Hitler and his allies, or against the genocide of Jews, or against Japan. Was it about self preservation? Preservation of an idea, or an ideal? What did the 3500 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq die for?

I can't get my head around how and why the deaths of U.S. soldiers are more to be remembered than the deaths of civilians, or of opposing soldiers. Maybe I've just too far and altogether lost my sense of nationality, of specific place and group. A lower estimate of civilian deaths in Iraq is 70,000. Did you know that, in some strange and powerful way connected with our own Vietnam War Memorial, there are memorials throughout vietnam honoring those who died to conquer the invasive occupying Americans? On this memorial day, as our nation pauses to consider the memory and meaning of the lives and deaths of american soldiers, who will remember the names of at least 70,000 innocent iraqi civilians who have died since we invaded?

Whom shall I honor tomorrow? As an human being who is increasingly attracted and committed to the idea of non violence, I want to remember those who are heroes of non violence who have lived or died in their quest for peace--people who believed that you can't fight death and tyranny by killing people--people who believed that the only way to end war and violence and hatred and increase security was to promote forgiveness and kindness and non-violent justice for the poor and those with no voice and little power and love for one’s enemies. Names that spring to mind are Ghandi, and King, Rachel Corrie, and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Who will you be honoring tomorrow?


stephanie said...

I'm most intrigued that you say dad did better than most.

Benjamin Ady said...


Yeah, I guess it's all relative--all statistics. If by "most" you mean a simple 51%, then you can sort of attempt to ponder what the lower 51% of fathers on the planet look like, and whether your dad falls above them in the distribution.

My dad seriously fucked up in his role in a number of ways. He also did some really excellent things that lots of dads never do. Where does he fall in the distribution? It's hard to get a qualitative grip on that. What percentage of dads didn't even hang around with the women whom they impregnated? What percentage of dads never ever spent any quality time with their kids? What percentage of dads didn't give a shit whether their kids were provided with any of the physical or emotional necessities that they needed as kids? What percentage of dads committed invasive or abandonment abuse against their kids, and to what degree? What perecentage of dad ever apologize?

I guess what has happened as I've grown older is I just realized that the world is a lot darker, shittier, more horrible place than I could have imagined back in the day when my POV was so much more limited in scope. Part of this has been to realize that most people in the world have it a lot worse than I do. That's not to say that I haven't suffered, but that my suffering has been, on the global scale, definitely in the less severe half of the distribution. So that being the case, .... what credit or blame does my dad get for that? Ultimately, just some not-that-largish percentage of it. But if I've suffered less than most, then it seems reasonable to say that he did better than most.

Hope that makes some sense.

byron said...

I've been reading a few US blogs this morning that have mentioned sermons on Memorial Day rather than Pentecost. I find it amazing and sad that the nationalist celebration trumps the Christian one even in the church.

stephanie said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. Lately I think that my dad, though he didn't do many of the things you hear of abusive parents doing, is just as bad as the worst of them. I think apology is really nothing and action is everything. I also wonder just how bad off other countries are compared to here. (Warzones obviously excepted) If you have community and a faithful, loving family and yet live in poverty, you are much richer than growing up how I did, with many material things and yet non-nurturing parents and we were emotionally neglected because we had no clearly defined and enforced boundaries.

Benjamin Ady said...


It's really fascinating to me that you find this amazing and sad. I'm guessing you've never lived here?

There is a strange ... and unavoidalbe mixture of nationalism, jingoism, patritism, and religion, christianiy, what have you in this country. So for instance on our big national holiday, Independence Day, which falls on July 4th, lots and lots of churches have enormous and very showy sunday morning services in which the celebrate the "glory" of the United States, sing lots of patriotic songs, have lots of huge american flags, etc. etc. I remember how monga wierd Megan thought that was the one time we ended up in one of those services. Not only was the fact itself monga wierd, but she was doubly wierded out when, as she put it, the whole congregation started singing "God Save the Queen", but with totally different lyrics--that is "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Of course most americans think of this song by the latter name and don't even realize that we stole it and rewrote the lyrics.

I could go on.

Benjamin Ady said...


it sounds like coming to terms with the reality of your growing up in your FOO has been and continues to be pretty freaking painful. I've experienced some of that myself. I'm sorry you've had to continue to deal with toxic B.S. from that quarter! You are a very strong person and I totally respect you for continuing to ... choose to feel and to stay engaged in the process of being human.

stephanie said...

thanks for thinking I'm a strong person. I'm really not sure if I am and that's not false modesty. I think I just got tired of living with the pain and decided to dive into it to heal it. It was painful but it doesn't continue to be so painful, I guess that's what healing does - alleviates a lot of the pain. I feel much more free having come to terms with the truth. There is still pain but not nearly as much as I was trying to suppress all these years.
I just read a Brian Wilson quote about this type of stuff...I'll find it and quote it to you properly.

Benjamin Ady said...

God save the Queen!
I think this religion-politics role confusion in the USA may well have its roots in the British Empire, upon which, thankfully, the sun has set. It is setting on the USA Empire, too. Rise up, Queen China!! I don't think think we should put too much hope in Empires ... they're pretty fickle.

Benjamin Ady said...

that, and this, are megs, not bens!

RCM- Steve said...

Wow, Benjamin. Good post. I jumped here from Justice and Compassion's website (via Helen's website). Comments there, too.

Thanks for the openness and honesty about your father, some info on our past wars, memorial day origins, & your views on questioning the value of all who die in war.

A lot of comments here have to do with family, our childhood past, and how it affects us today. Very relevant stuff, & an area of interest/ministry in my life for a long time. Anyone heard of ACA? There's some potent stuff there.