Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Veteran's Day
Here's one other tale from our Michigan weekend. We hit a few antique stores on our way home yesterday, and at one of them, the elderly proprietor asked us where we were from. When I said "Wisconsin," he asked us if we'd ever been to the Submarine Memorial in Manitowoc (which we have). It turned out that the proprietor was a World War II submarine veteran from the crew of the USS Puffer, which was built at the Manitowoc shipyard and which, he proudly noted, was one of the top sinkers of enemy subs in the whole U.S. Navy.

The man was gregarious in the way friendly old guys often are, full of stories and not wanting to let you go before you've heard just one more. It became clear to me that this man's service over 60 years ago was not just the greatest adventure but the greatest achievement of his life--that it shaped what he became after coming home, and his pride in what he did continues to shape every day of his life even though he's past 80 years old. Because it was Memorial Day, meeting him really meant a great deal to me. I was happy to listen to his stories--and happy to have the chance to thank him for his service.

I doubt that the common soldier or sailor on the front lines, the person whose sacrifices we celebrated yesterday, has time to think much about the geopolitical maneuvering and the forces of history that put them where they are. They're too busy focusing on duty and survival, as they should be. And if they're lucky enough to survive, grow old, and entertain customers from behind the cash register of an antique store, the stories they are most likely to tell revolve around friendships and cameraderie rather than how their actions changed history and shaped geopolitics. But those of us who were unborn when they had their adventures tend to judge them through the lens of what history has taught us about their times and their cause. So because World War II was fought for such high stakes, because the Allied victory meant so much to the generations that followed, and because so much time has passed, we can, in a broad sense, look at a common soldier or sailor who was there as someone who personally won it, and who is one of the architects of postwar America, a time and place that was pretty good to those of us fortunate enough to live in it. (Even if that's not generally how they look at themselves.)

On some Memorial Day 60 years hence, somebody like me is going to meet somebody like the sub veteran in some antique store somewhere--only then, the stories the vet tells will be of Iraq. It's my hope that those listening to the stories will not be ashamed by the history they illuminate, but will instead listen respectfully and be grateful to have met someone who was there long ago, when the world was made better than it would have been without their sacrifice. Whether those listeners will be grateful or ashamed is largely up to all of us living now. It's not enough for the president to keep insisting that the cause in Iraq is just and the sacrifices worthwhile. We need to prove it by our actions now and in the years to come, and let history judge, because it will--one way or the other.

Recommended Reading Now That I've Cleared Out My Inbox After Being Gone All Weekend: On the subject of how history will judge us, Thom Hartmann suggests the 2004 election will decide whether we will continue the evolution democracy has promised humanity for over 200 years, or return to the dead end of empire. In The New Yorker, Evan Eisenberg ponders "Bushido: The Way of the Armchair Warrior". Elsewhere, Bill Earls suggests why the Bush Twins should enlist in the armed services. And the wizard of quote juxtaposition, Mick Youther, thinks it's time for the Christian Right to look at Bush and ask, "What would Jesus do?" Last of all, there's been some thoroughtly righteous stuff in the Village Voice over the last few days: Nat Hentoff on the crumbling Patriot Act; and in a new feature called "Paranoid Nation," Kareem Fahim on what widespread suspicion that the Nick Berg execution video might be faked says about our growing mistrust of the official story of everything and Gary Indiana (if that is his real name) on why conspiracy theory endures even as it's dismissed as fringe ranting.

That's a lot of homework. Have fun.

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