Flowers on a Headstone

Today is that holiday which used to be called Decoration Day, because people would decorate the graves of the war dead. It was first observed in 1868, as a way of honoring the hundreds of thousands of men who died in the Civil War. It’s a quaint notion now, decorating graves. It sounds much too festive. Perhaps that’s why it eventually came to be known as Memorial Day, since the idea all along was to memorialize, to remember, the men and women who died in the service of their country.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of wars, great and small, that have taken place around the world since 1868. I wouldn’t want to, anyway, as it would be depressing. It would also make me feel cynical, and I vowed, when I sat down to write this, that I would not take a cynical tone. After weeks of rain in the Mile High City, we finally have a beautiful sunny morning this Memorial Day. I don’t want to spoil it.

I’m put in mind of Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, wherein he claimed to have come to bury Caesar, not praise him. His goal, of course, was to do both. I, on the other hand, have no desire to praise war, and would be all too happy to see it buried forever. We all know that’s not going to happen. Wars continue to blossom, all around the planet. (Blossom is too nice a word, I know, just as decoration is too festive.)

It’s difficult to not be discouraged, or cynical. It’s easy to turn off the television or put down the newspaper, and ignore the dismal news. Especially if it’s foreigners killing each other in some obscure part of the world that most Americans would be hard pressed to find on a map or a globe.

Unlike Iraq. We all know exactly where that is, don’t we? Messrs. W. and Cheney saw to that. Those two gentlemen (another word that’s too nice) have long since exited stage right, leaving us with more white headstones to decorate today.

Their legacy extends well beyond that, though. As Mark Antony went on to say, “The evil that men do lives after them.”

My war – the one I did not fight to make the world safe for democracy, or to keep fictitious WMD out of the hands of madmen – took place over forty years ago. I bet you can find Viet Nam on a map now. Having survived that war, and its own aftermath, and being someone who cannot put down the paper and ignore the stories, I’ve been experiencing a weird déjà vu lately. I look at the top of the newspaper: yes, it’s 2015, not 1975. The stories, though, are disturbingly similar.

An insurgent group relentlessly opposed to foreign domination captures strategically-located cities and large swathes of countryside. In the face of this offensive, the national army, the one the United States supported for years with blood, money and matériel, drop their rifles and run away, leaving the keys in the tanks and the artillery intact.

Politicians over there complain that the United States strategy is flawed and that we’re not doing enough. Politicians here complain that the national army has no will to fight, and anyway, their army is ineptly led, the country is riddled with corruption, and there is flagrant discrimination against certain groups in their society. Some of the politicians here say things like, “If they won’t fight for their own country, why should we?”

I look at the top of the newspaper again. Yes, it’s still 2015. Not 1975.

It’s increasingly difficult to avoid cynicism on hearing the latest news out of the Middle East. And I said I wasn’t going to spoil this beautiful morning. I look out my window, instead. Dozens of flowers, perennially hopeful, have opened in the sunshine. They make me think of a song that became popular during the war in which I fought. The original version of it was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary.

I was going to write something else, but now I think I’ll end this post with some of the lyrics from that song. They seem as relevant now as they did in 1975.

***

Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

***

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3 Responses to Flowers on a Headstone

  1. roxyhatesglutenCaroline says:

  2. Denise Kodi says:

    Thank you for your wisdom here, Michael. Btw, I couldn’t help reading your piece again yesterday (The Fundamental Clarity of Light), and forwarding the link to a few friends. Like me, they were also moved by your experience and by the powerful way in which you write about it. Hugs 2 you!

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