Memorial Day weekend. A time to reflect on the men and women who serve our country and those who served before them. A time to honor them in ways that are so simple and so easy: tending a grave, attending a parade, little things.
Unfortunately, Darleen came down with the bubonic plague or the creeping crud or something, so we were more or less housebound. Our only sortie was when I drove her into town to pick up some meds, where we made a contribution to our local VFW and were each given a small artificial red poppy.
Such a little thing, yet it brought back memories of my father taking the family to one of the famed cemeteries now collectively known as Flanders Fields after the famous poem by Canadian poet John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break the faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
It was almost sixty years ago, so I no longer remember which World War One battlefield it was that lingers in my memory from that long ago trip—Ypres, Passchendaele, another—but the visual memory remains, brought back by an artificial poppy.
I’m very grateful to my parents, both of whom served in World War Two, for taking me to so many places and exposing me to so many different aspects of man’s most memorable achievements, from Roman aqueducts still in use over two thousand years after they were built, and the glorious life-affirming beauty of the best of man in the form of art from the caves of Lascaux to van Gogh, to the darker, destructive side represented by those battlefields and others my father knew so much about. I can still hear his voice explaining to a small boy: “This is where Wellington sat his horse. This is where the German tanks… This is where General Patton…” I hear too my mother’s voice giving us her sometimes accurate, but always colorful historical accounts of this Civil War battle or the siege of that castle by… Most, and the best, of the education I have was never learned in any classroom.
I wonder what my parents would make of the world’s current troubles in the form of ISIS and radical Islam. I’ve been reading a lot of history lately, including an account of the causes of perhaps the most ridiculously unnecessary war of all time, World War One (The War that Ended Peace, the prize-winning account by Margaret MacMillan), the war of Flanders fields and Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and so many others, and it’s hard to make an unequivocal argument in favor of war, any war. Certainly World War One represented more destruction, more loss of life, for less reason than perhaps any other war in the bloody history of man, but all wars, seen through the excellent bifocals of hindsight, seem so unnecessary, so avoidable. And yet here we sit again, watching the bloody rise of maniacal monsters, and it will all play out again, one way or the other, and there will be more fields, with more crosses, and more poppies.
Perhaps the shortest poem to come out of that most destructive and unnecessary war that inspired so much great poetry was by the great Rudyard Kipling. Kipling, like so many others of that and every generation, actively encouraged his son John to fight for… For what? God and country? England’s honor? A patch of earth? What? It still boggles the mind that World War One should ever have taken place. But John joined the Irish Guards and was killed in the Battle of Loos at the age of eighteen. In his grief, Rudyard Kipling wrote the following couplet:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.