When a member of the British Parliament asked “What was there to commemorate about World War I?” he found himself in a pickle and almost lost his head to what some people have called the poppy fascists.
Remembrance Day in Britain and Commonwealth nations is commemorated by the wearing of red poppies to remember the almost million dead in that war. Lately, some Brits have been wearing white poppies as in one last cry for peace. Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have underestimated his country’s sense of history and its abiding sentimentalism. British by birth, I could never fall into that trap because I had an austere and sentimental mother who listened as a kid to the WWI guns pounding in France while walking on the beaches of Kent, England. She remembered the procession of the dead and injured returning home. She would not have approved of Corbyn curtly dismissing the 1914 British venture as a war to hang onto empire.
Whether we like it or not, wars never seems to go away. In America, we are still fighting the Civil War that sometimes is reenacted outside of bars, on the stage or on some grassy knoll ringed with cannon fire. It’s in that flag, in our statuary, and in part of the Saturday afternoon football anthem spiked with the familiar rebel yell.
I am proud of my four-year service in the United States Navy, where I learned much more about life (and death) than during my four years as an undergraduate. Anyone who has served will tell you: military service resides in the psyche for as long as we live, as memory, ghost or trauma. I think that’s why I finally wrote “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” a generation after my discharge. That voice was finally silenced.
Then I heard the voice again in Bob Woodward’s “Last of the President’s Men,” based on documents provided by Alexander Butterfield, special assistant to President Nixon and the man who revealed that the White House was taping all conversations. This revelation led to Nixon’s resignation.
The book spends a lot of time pointing out the obvious. Nixon was petty, petulant and seemed to lack an emotional center. These observations were not exactly page-turners. What caught my eye was an exchange between Nixon and Henry Kissinger acknowledging that, after ten years of total control over the airspace of Laos and Vietnam and dropping more bombs than America did during World War II, nothing was accomplished. Nixon admitted that the intense bombing was a failure but he continued it for political reasons. The President thought this is what got him elected.
I spent a good bit of my Navy time on an ammunition ship in the Tonkin Gulf, supplying aircraft carriers with bombs and projectiles for this air campaign. As an assistant navigator, I knew the Tonkin Gulf and surrounding areas quite well. I suspected from the very beginning that the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution” passed by Congress to authorize force in Asia after an encounter between a US destroyer and a North Vietnamese vessel was mainly a pre-Nixon pretext for war. The rest, as they say, is a history that is all too familiar.
I seem to have spent most of my adult life railing unsuccessfully against ill-conceived wars based on lies, half-truths and a resilient mendacity. For years after the invasion of Iraq, I wrote a blog post at madcowculture.org trying to draw parallels between the diseased brain of that poor animal and our national psyche. My favorite psychologist James Hillman has written that throughout recorded history the pen has never been mightier than the sword. America paid little attention to our dead veterans being shipped through Dover Airforce base in the middle of the night under direct orders of President Bush.
My brother and I recently visited an elderly sister in Ohio who told me that she held me soon after I was born, a remark that always takes my breath away. My sister’s mind and face speak of history. She was born into a nation of poppies where 890,000 young British men were killed in the first truly industrial war. My sister speaks of family members who were lost in that horror or who later died from their wounds or the effects of mustard or chlorine gases. She was very familiar with the damp, country homes where orphaned children stayed.
She remembers the London Blitz because it was yesterday. She recalls the air raid sirens, the roofs and apartment walls falling and the dead underfoot. She would marry an American GI who was honored for his valor fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He rarely spoke about the war and like many veterans carried his wound, now called PTSD, until the end.
After visiting my sister, we visited my college mentor in Pittsburgh, PA. I thanked him again for helping me transition from military life to college. As usual, we got around to talking about our time in uniform. He had served in the US Army after World War II. His first post was Okinawa, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theater. He recalled without emotion or embellishment crawling through the caves on Okinawa where much of the most brutal fighting took place, looking for remains and other evidence for personnel reports. The structure of the caves made the stench of death even more remarkable and memorable.
On the Day of Remembrance, I will proudly wear my red poppy in honor of all those who lost their lives and also for those who keep alive the memories of such awful times so others can recite and retell them, endlessly down through the ages.