Thoughts on Memorial Day

When I was a student at UCLA, I lived across the street from the Westwood Veteran’s Cemetary. Several things struck me about that experience: 1) I used to watch one of the groundskeepers ride his large mower around and over the graves and wondered whether he was thinking about any of those buried in the earth below him. I wondered, too, what they thought about him. 2) Those were the latter years of the Vietnam War and, although my activism bloomed late, I had, by then, a well-established estranged relationship with my government and pride in my country. When, every year, in honor of several American holidays, each grave was adorned with a small, American flag, I was unsettled. I felt sorrow for each of the soldiers and former soldiers in those graves. I also felt that advantage was being taken of these dead women and men to sell those notions of support of government and pride in country. 3) I kept wondering about the rest of the lives of those who were buried there. I knew that each one was so much more than merely a soldier. They were fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, children, friends, professionals, husbands and wives, grandparents and more. It seemed to me that being buried beneath the lawn of the Veterans Cemetary that they might be doomed to be soldiers for eternity!

I’m a bit older and wiser (I hope) now. Still, I have those feelings of ambivalence about my country that is still at war – not in Vietnam, of course, but still at war. I still feel sorrow for the soldiers. I support them as people and feel sorrow for them needing to be soldiers. Mostly I feel sorrow that they cannot be present during their tours-of-duty to fulfill their non-soldier roles or, worse, have their lives cut short and never be able to fulfill those roles.

Every Memorial Day, I pray that the next Memorial Day there will be no fresh graves to adorn with flags. Call me old-fashioned, I still believe in that beating-swords-into plowshares stuff. I especially like what the Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai said about it:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels

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