News this weekend of the US-led attack in Syria reminded me of our military members. Given that my daughter and son-in-law both serve in the US Army, things that affect our military are always on my radar. It is one of the reasons I subscribe to “Stars and Stripes”. You could say I have a vested interest, but being the son of a WWII vet and the nephew of a WWII POW (and having numerous Korean conflict and Vietnam conflict vets in the family), I have always tried to remain aware of what is happening to and with our military.
Patriotism is defined as a love of one’s homeland; a vigorous support for one’s country. How this has played out over the years has changed, as I mention in the message below that was delivered for Veterans’ Day in 2013 at the UU Fellowship at Burlington, IA. Given recent events and the approach of Memorial Day I thought it might still be relevant.
Sacrifice. It is a term that if often used in conjunction with Veterans’ Day. It brings to mind the sacrifice made by members of our armed services as they leave the relative safety of civilian life and enter the far more dangerous and deadly life in the military. We set aside two days each year to remember the sacrifice made by these men and women. It is also appropriate to remember the sacrifice their families made as they said goodbye to loved ones, uncertain if they would ever see them again. Families who bravely went on with their lives while their loved ones were in harm’s way.
Growing up the son of a World War II veteran I became familiar with the stories of the World War II era. Remembrances of the Pearl Harbor attack and President Roosevelt’s speech that united our nation in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy. Stories about the changes that took place in the lives of my family members as sons, brothers and husbands (and some daughters, sisters and mothers) went off to war. Two such sons will always be foremost in my memories.
My father, Harland David Johnson, entered the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. He took basic training at Fort Ord not far from San Diego, California. I heard many stories from him about his time at Fort Ord, stories about the craziness that accompanied the strict discipline of boot camp. One of my favorite pictures of Dad shows him standing at the end of a fishing boat holding up a huge stringer of fish that he caught on a trip with some of his buddies. He never got tired of talking about how the fish that day would bite the bare treble hooks they would string out behind the boat. From the look on his face it was obvious he had a blast.
He talked about his trip across the Atlantic to England, and how he stayed at the rail for much of it until he finally got his sea legs. The trip across the English Channel was another matter, as most soldiers who crossed it will confirm. He joked how he never had been that sick in his life.
Dad was a driver and car mechanic. He would drive officers into town for various meetings, or drive trucks with supplies up to the front. Even in that there was time for humor, such as when he ended up stealing a general’s Jeep because the one he had driven into town with his captain had been stolen.
The only time he really never talked about was only time during the war that he really saw any combat. This was during the Ardennes Campaign, or what is commonly called the Battle of the Bulge. Every able bodied soldier who could carry a weapon went forward during that battle; cooks, corpsmen, mechanics, and drivers. Dad never spoke much about that time, other than to say that he fought in the battle. There was no joking, no humor, no stories to be told other than that.
The other son that comes to mind is my uncle, Winfred Alexander Twidwell, or Uncle Wink, as we called him. He was one of my mother’s elder brothers, and was drafted into service as part of the first peacetime draft in 1940. When the War broke out he was sent to Northern Africa where he was an ambulance driver and corpsman.
During one rather heated battle not far from Tripoli word came in that there were a number of casualties along the front. Uncle Wink and one of the medics were sent in an ambulance to one unit to bring back a soldier who had been shot. The drive up to the front was hellish as rounds from tanks were exploding near them. But they made it to their assigned unit and picked up the wounded soldier.
However, during their drive up to the front the German and Italian armies had broken the line in several spots, and as Uncle Wink was ready to drive back to the hospital an Italian army unit with German tank support surrounded them. They surrendered, and all the soldiers were eventually taken to an Italian prisoner of war camp, where Uncle Wink would stay for some eighteen months. Then, as the war started going badly for the Italians, his POW camp was evacuated and all prisoners were transferred to a German POW camp where they stayed until the Germans began exchanging prisoners with the Americans, a few months before the fall of Germany.
Uncle Wink used to tell stories about the German soldiers left to guard them. All truly able-bodied men were sent to one of the two active fronts in the war, leaving the older, less capable soldiers and the really young kids behind to work as guards. Thus the guards were often easily fooled by the prisoners. Yes, there was a still in operation in several of the barracks. Yes, there were a number of jokes played on the camp kommandant, an older officer who at any other time would have been farmed out for retirement. Uncle Wink used to love the TV show “Hogan’s Heroes” because so much of it reminded him of the ineptitude of the German guards at his POW camp.
When Uncle Wink returned home after the prisoner exchange that freed him he spent several weeks in Hot Springs, Arkansas being debriefed and enjoying some R&R time. The debriefing included a bit of counseling, but at that time there was nothing called post-traumatic stress disorder, and no real desire by the Army to learn about the mental effects of war on the soldiers. So after he rested up he went home to his very anxious family.
For the next few months the rest of the family had to be very careful around Uncle Wink. Grandmother had to wake him with a broom, gently prodding him when it was time for him to get up. Even then there were times he would break the broom before he realized where he was. Loud noises would visibly shock him, and the sound of gunfire used to cause him to crouch low to the ground, even if the noise came from the radio.
Thankfully, after a few months, life returned to normal. And in a way the story even had a happy ending of sorts. In the mid 1990s when Uncle WInk was in the Poplar Bluff Veteran’s Hospital for a proceedure he ran into an old friend: the medic who was in the ambulance when the Italians captured them. After catching up on old times they remained close and saw each other frequently until Uncle Wink died in 2005.
Sacrifice. During World War II it was something that many people did on a daily basis. A cousin sent me a ration book that he found when cleaning out some old papers that belonged to his mother. It was the ration book my mother used while she was living in St. Louis during the war years, welding bunks for the war effort. In it are stamps for the various products that were being rationed. Gasoline, cooking oil, nylon, leather, meat, butter, tires, and coffee were among the items being rationed during the war. Without a ration stamp you could not purchase these products, even if you had the money for the purchase.
We honor the sacrifice made by our military members, both living and killed in action, on Veterans’ Day here in the US. Some who recall an older tradition still observe two minutes of silence at 11:00 AM on that day; one minute for those killed in war and another for those left behind to carry on without them. In doing so we recognize the need for sacrifice in times when our nation is in danger of attack, and the sacrifice required to keep our armed services ready to defend against attack.
But the notion of sacrifice by those not serving in the military has fallen out of vogue in these modern times. The idea that those of us who do not wear the uniform or stand in harm’s way should bear some of the burden of our nation’s defense seems foreign, an idea that is as old as Mom’s ration book. Our politicians send our military into battle in foreign lands for spurious reasons, running up a huge national debt, while providing tax cuts and corporate subsidies in an ever increasing amount. Gone are the calls for making sacrifices to pay for the war effort. Gone are the calls to by Victory Bonds, or have meatless Tuesdays. Gone is the question, “Is that trip necessary?”
Sacrifice. In thinking about what it is that we, as a nation, could sacrifice to support the efforts of our military members to protect our nation and preserve the peace, I am reminded of some words I have heard many times in a different setting; in the “game” we call the Society for Creative Anachronism.
With each new King and Queen there are opportunities for various members of the kingdom to come forward and swear fealty to the new Crown. It is a recreation of the fealty oaths that peers of the realm, landholders, and soldiers had to swear to their rulers. During the Coronation ceremony each group is called forward and given the opportunity to swear fealty to the Crown. It is a solemn moment in spite of the knowledge that we are simply playing a game, so to speak.
The oath has two parts. The first is recited by the person(s) swearing fealty. The other part is recited by the King and Queen. That part goes something like this.
“We accept your fealty, freely given, and promise never to sacrifice you needlessly. We will reward fealty with honor, service with gratitude, and oath-breaking with vengeance. Thus swear we.”
The promise to never sacrifice someone needlessly comes to mind today. Our military members are ready to offer the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. When they raise their hands and take the oath as members of the military, they know full well that they may be sent into a situation where they or their buddies will die. They trust that their sacrifice will not be done needlessly.
What can we sacrifice, as a nation, to honor those who have given their lives in the defense of our nation? What can we sacrifice to honor those who wear the uniform today and are in harm’s way to defend our nation’s interests? I would suggest that the best sacrifice we could make to honor them would be to stop sacrificing them needlessly. To stop sending our “best and brightest” into war for no reason other than to satisfy the whims of our leaders or to protect the investments of our wealthiest corporations.
What can we sacrifice to honor these men and women? Let us sacrifice war itself. I believe that would be a sacrifice that would be appropriate on this Veterans’ Day.