Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?

Translation: "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country." (Horace's Odes)

I accompanied my eighth-grade son's class to Arlington National Cemetery the Sunday before Memorial Day. I am not known for my pro-war credentials, so I expected to feel uncomfortable at the least, and downright annoyed at worse. Memorial Day Eve is a special time to visit Arlington, where 300,000 American flags graced every grave. I appreciate that act of devotion. I like to think that each of the people who placed the flags said a little blessing as they worked. As we walked along the pleasant grounds of what was once Robert E. Lee's home, it struck me that the tombstones were themselves an ode to the armed services' devotion to bringing order of chaos. As a poetic device, I appreciate that. Order is good. It doesn't erase the fact that legions of war dead, and those who suffered through yet survived the brutality of combat, lie beneath the ground.

We went to the Kennedy family's plot. John and Bobby died so long ago they might as well have lived at the same time as Horace. But I was surprised to find myself moved to tears when I came to Teddy's grave. There's no denying that the man was an old sinner, but I ended up respecting him for his ability to get things done in our national legislature, a feat that appears to have died with him. There were several medals from labor unions atop his grave, and a St. Christopher medal, and some coins and other tokens people had left behind. Maybe I had such a strong response because he died almost three years ago. I don't know. But like I said, it surprised me.

The brother of a seventh-grade student from the middle school had been recently buried in Arlington, and she had asked us to visit his grave. All 45 of us walked to the recent graves. That was also very moving.

So back to what Horace said. I'm always put off when I hear people say that freedom isn't free. To me, that means that somebody else's child or spouse or close relative or friend has had to give their lives so we can be free. Wars keep getting more and more expensive, literally and figuratively, and less and less do they serve the holy purposes stated by our leaders. How many wars have we had to end all wars, and yet war still rages in Afghanistan and Darfur and is brewing elsewhere?

We behave as if someday we're going to get the whole war thing right, when only God has the power to make all things right. Because we as a species seem to be almost incapable of it. The best we can do is to stop making things wrong.

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