Written by John H. Thomas
June - July 2008
The Memorial Day parade of my childhood ended at the town cemetery amid the veterans' graves. Gold and silver star mothers featured prominently and there was usually a speaker from one of the military branches along with music from the high school band.
Toward the end of my teenage years the event became more and more politicized as the speeches were used to defend the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. I don't recall protesters, but I do remember how the angry national debate altered the character of the somber ceremonies, intruding upon our remembrance of those who had suffered and died in previous wars with shrill partisanship.
These childhood memories returned this Memorial Day for me, due in large part to the fact that my son, David, is serving in Afghanistan with the Pennsylvania National Guard. Many have noted the irony in this. They wonder how David and his comrades feel about his father being arrested outside the White House carrying petitions against their Commander in Chief's war policies though, in truth, David's politics are not all that different from my own.
His decision to join the National Guard did surprise us, another reminder to parents that our children will make thoughtful and good decisions that diverge significantly from the path we imagine or desire for them.
I was proud of David before he left for Afghanistan, and I am still proud of him. But I confess that it was difficult to watch him assemble with a thousand other troops in full battle gear for his "send off" ceremony in February. Would that his unit was off to a place like Myanmar to deliver humanitarian relief rather than to a war zone where the objectives remain unclear and the likelihood of creating a lasting improvement of life for Afghan citizens seems uncertain at best.
As I thought of David this Memorial Day, I also remembered Steve, my inseparable companion in the church youth group. After high school we saw each other rarely; I left for college while he headed off to the Marines and a harrowing tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969. I heard this winter that Steve had died. The official cause of death was a heart attack. But I also learned that this talented friend had struggled increasingly with alcoholism, a product in part of post traumatic stress that had haunted him since the war.
I suppose Memorial Day will always be about patriotic ceremonies and the protests that gather around the edges. But ultimately it's about the children we send off to places of physical danger and, often, even greater moral peril.
David assures us he is in a relatively "quiet" part of Afghanistan. But that doesn't stop me from worrying about him, or mourning my friend Steve and his long struggle with hidden wounds.
And it makes me wonder whether, at the very least, Memorial Day ought to be a day of lament for a world so morally unimaginative that the violence of war can seem more justifiable than regrettable.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president, is a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers.