The Presence Of War Always Negates The Presence of Civility

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Clif Martin, a long-time friend and Vietnam veteran, responded to my blog last Memorial Day with this insightful and profound thought:

I’m glad we still have Memorial Day in America. I fly the American flag everyday at my house. As I write this, it is raining. You are supposed to take it down when it rains, but today I am not – a symbolic gesture in my screwed up head- like the flag stands tall even when wet, cold and windblown. It droops as though bowing in prayer. Yet it stands tall even when wet, cold and wind blown.

It is Memorial Day and will fly all day regardless of the weather, just as our memories continue as well. As the flag drops, a gust of wind blows. It flaps and sheds the wetness and once again is waving and standing out, just as we should.

After the rain is over the sun will come out, the flag with dry and be warm again much like God’s promise and the flag will fly again tomorrow fully dry and straight”.

For decades, Memorial Day was a day in our nation when stores closed and communities gathered together for a day of parades and other celebrations with a patriotic theme. Memorial Day meant ceremonies at cemeteries around the country, speeches honoring those who gave their lives, the laying of wreathes and the playing of Taps.

Sadly, as a nation we’ve mostly lost this connection with our history. Memorial Day has come simply be associated with a three-day weekend signaling the end of school. Families may still gather for picnics, but for most the patriotic core- the spirit of remembrance- is absent.

It was simply by happenstance, but this week I listened to the audio recording of the book entitled “Killing Lincoln.” President Lincoln’s assassination was closely tied to leftover hostilities associated to the Civil War.

I’ve never thought about it before, but isn’t the term Civil War an oxymoron? The presence of civility should negate the presence of war. The presence of war always negates the presence of civility.

My all time favorite movie is “Shenandoah”. The film was released the year I graduated from high school. Can it be possible that the movie is fifty years old? It obviously is a very old movie, but it chronicles a story that is pertinent and clearly portrays the unsettling and destructive nature of war.

“Shenandoah” is he story of Charlie Anderson, a patriarchal widower who owns a farm in Shenandoah, Virginia at the outbreak of the Civil War. He is adamant that none of his six sons join the war effort because from his perception it isn’t their fight. Unfortunately, war and civility cannot coexist in a culture. Anderson subsequently is forced to engage in the conflict after his youngest son “Boy” accidently stumbles into a Confederate ambush. Boy is wearing an old rebel soldier kepi cap that he found at the river. When a union patrol comes on he and a friend who are hunting raccoon, Boy is taken prisoner of war.

The most emotional highlight of the film is near the end. The surviving members of Anderson’s family arrive late for church. As the congregation completes the first song, the pastor starts to announce the next hymn. Boy stumbles though the back door on a crutch. The entire congregation looks, and Charlie Anderson turns to see what is happening. His face lights up, and he helps his son to the pew. Everyone joyously sings in unison as the story ends.

Memorial Day has its roots all the way back to the Civil War. I have been privileged to tour the battlefield at Gettysburg twice in recent years. Reportedly, it is the site of the most costly of the battles. The location is very picturesque and today reflects such serenity. How did it ever become a battlefield reflecting so much sorrow?

What capacity we have to destroy that which we have been given. In the course of three days, 160,000 soldiers engaged in battle. When it was over 51,000 were killed. Unbelievable! Total casualties from the Civil War totaled 620,000.

My grandmother’s maternal grandfather, William Henry King, served in Gray’s 28th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, during the Civil War. Interestingly, he maintained a journal of his experiences as an enlisted man. The University of Tennessee Press/Knoxville posthumously published the journal in 2006. According to information stated on the inside cover of the book, “King’s consistently detailed entries- notable for their literary style, Kings venomous wit, and his colorful descriptions- cover a wide array of matters pertaining to the Confederate experience in the West.”

I found the book thought provoking. Intertwined in the narrative of facts associated with the war, he chronicles his perception that decisions associated to the war effort were seldom as forthright as they were promoted. Many of the decisions which subordinates were subsequently ordered to carry out were done so under the auspices of “vested interest” for those in a position of prominence and power. Perhaps that is historically the “Achilles heel” from which many decisions associated to war come.  I recognize that I am delicately close to writing something that could alienate or offend. That is not my intent. Perhaps the DNA from my great, great grandfather is expressing itself.

About this time last year when the Honorary General and I were at Camp Lejeune, NC, keeping our grandchildren, I was shocked to notice that most of the troops looked like kids. I celebrate their youthful idealism, their sense of service to God and country and their commitment to making a difference in protecting the interests of our Nation. I don’t have the background or expertise to know how we resolve issues with Iraq and Afghanistan, but I am concerned that we continue to funnel young people into harms way. From a layman’s perspective, I’m not sure what we are getting as an outcome other than proliferating more flag draped coffins.

Let me move from that thought to another associated to Memorial Day. I didn’t know there were words to the music. Whenever I’ve heard it played, I always have an emotional reaction. The music always leaves me with a lump in my throat and often tears in my eyes. The words to the music have a simple, but profound message:

“Day is done, gone the sun, from the Lakes from the hills from the sky, all is well, safely rest, God is nigh. Fading light, Dims the sight, And a star Gems the sky Gleaming bright, From afar, Drawing nigh, Falls the night. Thanks and praise, For our days, Neath the sun, Neath the stars, Neath the sky, As we go, This we know, God is nigh.”

A Google search related to Taps states the following: “The origin of Taps dates back to the year 1862 during the Civil War. Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land. During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field.

Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the Captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.  Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the Captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier but the soldier was dead.  The Captain lit a lantern and suddenly caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his son.

The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he enlisted in the Confederate Army. The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted.  The Captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for his son at the funeral.

The request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate but, out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician. The Captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of the dead youth’s uniform. This wish was granted. The haunting melody we now know as ‘Taps’ used at military funerals was born.”

May this Memorial Day be cause to reflect of the privilege of living in a land where the freedoms we enjoy have been paid for with the ultimate sacrifice of many.

All My Best!

Don

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