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Recently the town where I live paid tribute to a soldier killed in Afghanistan. Local news reports stated he and a friend were attacked by a suicide bomber as they stood by a building. The KIA, recently married, was blown to bits. At the wake the casket was closed.
My partner Carla is friend of the widow. My friend Jim, an infantry Nam vet, lives four blocks from the church hosting the memorial service. The KIA, a stocky and good-looking young man was well known for his high spirits and generous nature. He was also the first combat death the town had taken in quite some time. Jim felt this explained the communal outpouring of sympathies, the parade that would follow the service, the abundant array of donated flowers, and, as we walked the tree lined streets, the wide yellow ribbons tied round every sycamore as far as one could see.
At the church, I was stunned by the sight of a dozen members of Rolling Thunder, the veterans and non-veterans biker club well known for its yearly motorcades in Washington, DC on Memorial Day. Commanding each level of the long granite stairs, arms folded across their chests, their faces were implacable. All mourners were compelled to pass this gauntlet before entering the nave.
Many vets have encountered attention seeking poseurs who spout tales of uncommon valor, sport rows of unearned combat ribbons. More often than not a few well put questions put the impostor to shame. I wondered which of these ardent patriots, their leather jackets adorned with military style pins and MIA/POW patches, had set or escaped an ambush, survived a rocket or mortar or ground attack? How many had seen the wounded, dead and dying up close and personal? Who among them had vivid war nightmares, heightened startle reflex,or suffered combats multi-curse of homicidal rage, depression, anxiety? ‘C’mon,’ I thought, ‘Which of you are the real deal, the genuine article, have the papers and scars and medals to prove it? Step up and show me. C’mon, show me what you got.’ But I did not speak so they did not hear me.
The lapel of his black suite adorned with a Combat Infantry Badge and Purple Heart, I wondered what Jim felt; and Carla, who knew my combat specters, what were her thoughts as we trudged into the packed church, found an empty pew and sat down? As the last mourners trickled in, the memorial service began.
Three elder male priests in white vestments took turns proclaiming god’s eternal glory, the virtues of duty and honor, the way to Paradise, where the dearly departed soldier would meet us at our appointed time. Periodically, all were prompted to stand and bow their heads in prayer.
An hour passed without mention of a single drop of blood or bit of bone; my mind drifted. What if the plaintive voice of the young KIA overtook the old men. Instead of pieties, what if he sang, Whitman-like, of war’s cruel wisdom? What if some poor soul stood and wept loud and long? What if a suicide bomber, undetected by Rolling Thunder, set off a hundred pounds of plastique explosive laced with nails, glass shards and piercing metal pellets? What if the bright sudden bang sent a shock wave of heat and flying body parts, wreaking havoc amongst the faithful? To my right, a black female military officer silently wept. She knows, I thought. She knows what went down. I regret not embracing her.
Earlier that day, Jim said a one-star general had been flown in and would speak at the service. A robust yet humble man, his dress uniform bearing medals for valor, this senior officer, at times spoke lovingly of the KIA, as if he’d known him, or many dead men. He avoided cliches; the better, I thought, to honor the dead soldier.
When the general had finished speaking, the widow, her voice inaudible, spoke for barely a minute. The dead man’s sister, struggling to be cheerful, related humorous events from their childhood. An active duty soldier who knew the deceased, choked back tears as he named the qualities which made the dead man unique. Finally, guiding the mourners out of the church, a priest chanted as he swung a censer of burning incense whose smoke trailed behind him like a veil.
* * *
Twenty-five ago I sat in the main auditorium of New York’s 92nd Street Y. The splendidly wood-paneled hall with its comfortable plush chairs was filled to capacity by a crowd of well-heeled Upper East and West Siders. Gucci and Prada vied with flowing coats of mink and sable and the rustle of imported fabrics. The occasion? A poetry reading to honor Veterans Day. At the time the country was not at war, greed was fashionable, life was good, and tonight’s gathering would praise in noble rhymes soldiers’ who’d fought on distant shores for America’s liberty and freedom.
“The first reader,” said the moderator, “Is Jon Stallworthy.”
I looked about. Not many in the room seemed to recognize the name. The gentry quieted their small talk, further settled into their seats, nestled their hands onto their laps. Stallworthy, a trim and handsome man with sharp features and a stern expression, stepped to the stage, stood at the podium, then gently admonished the audience. Today, he said, was not a day for casual celebration or glib sentiments. Rather, Armistice Day, as it was first known, commemorated the millions who died in the Great War, which had ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of 1918. And death in the mud-filled trenches, the rat-infested bunkers, in bomb-cratered no-mans-land, was not pleasant. Stallworthy thought it fitting to read from the poetry of Wilfred Owen, killed in action one week before wars end.
“I will begin with ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est,’ ” he said.
“Do you know this poem,” I whispered to friend seated next to me.
“No,” he replied.
“In a moment, everyone here will squirm in their seats.”
He looked at me strangely. “How do you know that?”
“Trust me,” I said.
Stallworthy was no stranger to Owen, having written his biography and edited the definitive collection of his poems. Unlike many well-intentioned academics, he knew how to read war poetry; how to inhabit each incendiary word, each startling stanza with sometimes sad and sometimes frightful but always energetic audacity. He calmly opened a well worn volume and began to read aloud:
“Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…”
The more Stallworthy evoked the dire attack, his voice and body seeming to ache with feeling, the more the audience shifted about, as if the spirit of the suffocating man, an emblem of agony, crawled and writhed before them.
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…
Several poems later, Stallworthy smartly closed the book, bowed his head to modest applause, then departed. Immediately, an audible surge of discomfort swept over the auditorium. Who was this impudent fellow to harm the holiday with talk of terror? What gave him the right to cast a pall on cheerful bustling New York, New York? The moderator, visibly shaken, introduced the next reader, who recited several popular war poems intent on duty, honor, country. He was well received.
* * *
I had hoped to attend the military funeral that followed the church service. I could imagine the sight and scent of the fresh dug grave. The zen-like lockstep of uniformed pall bearers shouldering the flag-draped casket, respectfully lowering it to place. The officer in charge three times calling out, “Fire!” At each command the brisk volleys shot in unison by seven riflemen. Stepping forward, the coronet player would sound the doleful lowing of Taps. Practiced hands would smartly tuck and fold the trim flag into a perfect triangle which the chaplain would present to the widow.
“On behalf of a grateful nation,” he would say, “This flag is presented as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.”
During this time some would weep and some would not but all would know one true thing: a good man, an honorable man, a medic killed in action, had been laid to rest. But that was something I did not see.
Our plans changed. We could not attend. In the church parking lot Carla and I bid farewell to Jim and caught a ride home with Dale and Rob, who’d sat behind us in church. I asked Rob, a graduate student his thoughts on the service.
“To be honest,” he said, “I found it uninteresting. To die in a strange land, what must that be like? How does one face it? I spent my time meditating. And I prayed for the family and the soul of…”
“Oh bullshit,” said Dale, a high strung college senior. One hand on the steering wheel, the other clutching his cell phone, he scowled, “The whole thing was bullshit. Like what Pat Tillman’s brother said after the politicians spoke at the funeral. You know, ‘Thanks for your thoughts but Pat’s not with God. He’s fuckin’ dead.’ ”
Dale pounded the horn and clenched his jaw shut. In the silence which followed, his anguished voice made clear what the service lacked. Though his words were morose and crude, jetting from his mouth vile and bitter, this was how Dale expressed grief. That’s what was missing at the memorial service, where liturgies and such, however well-intentioned, cannot hide a lost war’s indecent losses. Or dignify false glory.