My Dad was in the Air National Guard during the Korean War. He had hoped that he would learn how to fly an airplane – he had grown up as one of the few poor kids in a very wealthy community – the sort of place where even in the late 40s a kid might have their own plane to mess around with. Dad knew that the only way he would ever learn would be if the military taught him. But he started to become nearsighted around the time he joined up, so he became a mechanic instead. Because Korea was starting to ramp up around that time, he was on active duty for about three years. Several times, his unit was scheduled to head out for the Pacific – but each time, the orders changed at the last minute, and he stayed Stateside. The planes he worked on went, but he didn’t. He sounded relieved when he talked about it – not that he didn’t have some harrowing experiences: seeing one airman stab another with an ice pick over a card game, being in a plane that went down in Louisiana and having to hoof it back to base several miles through a swamp at night… but he was openly grateful that his training in hand-to-hand combat had never been put to use.
I remember asking him when I was about nine or ten, “Would you have killed anyone, Dad, if you had gone over there?” He looked sad, and shook his head, “I don’t know, honey. I don’t know.” In later years, I learned that he felt guilt over his involvement as a mechanic – he may not have fired any shots, but he did patch up targeting devices and bomb doors – he was part of the machinery of war, and as such could not pretend to himself that he had not participated in killing.
This is a time of year when I think of my father, and of other veterans. As a child, I remembered my father’s birthday not in its own right, but as the day after Veteran’s Day. I remember marching in the Veteran’s day parade through the small town we lived in when I was ten, as part of my Girl Scout troop. I had thought Dad would be excited or proud, but he grumbled that he remembered when it was Armistice Day. That he was a veteran, and he didn’t want a day.
To round out this picture, I want to be clear that my Dad might have been registered as an independent, but had voted Republican at least since 1980. He was an annual dues paying member of the NRA (until the “not my president” remark, which struck my military-trained father as treasonous.) He told me that I was over-reacting when I protested that he and mom should not be popping popcorn and sitting in front of the television “watching the war” in 1991, as if it were just a TV movie. He respected my own pacifist position, though having lived through McCarthyism, it made him nervous. He saw war as a necessary evil, and thought it was naive of me to even consider the possibility that violence might not be necessary after all. I considered pacifism to be a natural outgrowth of all he had taught me. He hoped it was just a phase, and was always determined that I be careful that my own idealism not get in the way of me being sensitive to those who disagreed, and especially to those who went to war. After all, he had lived through Vietnam, too.
A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parent’s church for my father’s birthday. The pastor talked some about “The Greatest Generation” (as Tom Brokaw would have it), and asked for all of the veterans of WWII to stand. In front of me there was a couple, and the wife prodded her sitting husband, “Stand up! You were there!” He shook his head. He didn’t want to be recognized for that, he told her. But she kept pushing with her words, “You deserve it!” Finally, maybe just to quiet her, he stood. There were about 5 other sheepish looking older men standing, too. Everybody clapped for them, but I didn’t see any of the vets smile at the applause. They looked sad. Then they sat down. I remember thinking that that was quite a thing to put them through. Sure, we don’t want to jeer at returning soldiers, the way some did after Vietnam. But it’s not particularly helpful to clap for them either – simply cheering is one way of denying the reality of the losses that veterans experienced “over there.”
WWII was over before my Dad was old enough to fight, but several of my uncles fought – one in Europe, the rest in the Pacific. One of them had been sent out to shoot a sniper hiding in a tree just outside of the camp. My uncle had been the third sent out after the sniper – the first two soldiers did not make it back. When my uncle came back home after the war, he woke up in a panic one night, ran down the stairs with a rifle, and shot all the windows out of his brand new car. I remember Dad telling me this story, and me being surprised never to have heard any of my uncles talk about the war. “Why would they want to talk about it?” he asked. He had a sense that, as a child, I was just looking for interesting stories. And to turn war into a series of exciting and interesting stories is to strip it of all meaning.
This weekend, Milites Christe, a student group at Duke Divinity school, is hosting a conference called “After the Yellow Ribbon.” Their intent is to bring the Church, the academic community, and the military into conversation with one another, in order to better love veterans – in order to see them in all of their complex humanity, to listen to them and to stand with them in their most broken places – to cry out with them, “How long, O Lord?…”
Last year, this weekend took on another association for me, when my father’s body could no longer hold multiple myeloma at bay. He died three days after his birthday – four days after Veteran’s Day. He was a complex and often infuriating man, stubborn and full of contradictions. And we loved one another fiercely. I am so grateful that he finally felt assured in his last months that there was nothing he had done (nor could have done) that was beyond God’s love and forgiveness for him. I pray that the conference this weekend might empower others to experience God’s grace for themselves and for all people – and to convey this grace with sensitivity and with power to all they encounter in the future – especially to those who have been wounded in the course of their participation in the military.