28 May 2006

Memorial Day

There’s a lovely, fierce, white-haired woman who lives in the community where I edit the newspaper. She’s in her 80s, but she’s sharper than most 40-year-olds I know. She’s a senior advocate, working tirelessly for the rights of elderly people. She decries those who would abuse and exploit the elderly, lays shame on the Bush Administration for its royal balls-up of Medicare Plan D and reminds readers of all ages that elders have an active voice in their communities and indeed, a great deal of wisdom to pass on, should anyone take the time to listen.

She never lets a holiday pass without a written observation. This last week, she wrote about Memorial Day, musing about how most Americans seem to be more interested in a three-day weekend and going out to play than in the real meaning of the holiday: Honoring our war dead.

She didn’t say this in her column, but I will: How many of us will attend a Memorial Day parade or ceremony? How many towns and cities in America even still have these? How many of us will actually tune in on Monday morning to hear President George W. Bush talk about the honor and sacrifice of our soldiers, those brave men and women who’ve died in service to their country?

Coming from him, a man of no honor and no sacrifice, a man who has sent America’s sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters to fight and die in an illegal and unnecessary war, the speech can only sound like a bad joke. As A Big Fat Slob posts at his blog of the same name, “I don't know about you, but this Memorial Day, I'd love to see that hilarious bit of Bush searching for the WMD in the White House.” He was referring, of course, to that nasty video Bush made and showed to an audience filled with politicians, celebrities, Important People and members of the press a couple of years ago during the Washington Press Association Dinner in Washington, DC. The video showed goofy ol’ George looking for those missing WMD behind the curtains, under his desk, etc. in the Oval Office.

He – and his audience, evidently -- thought it was funny. They laughed and laughed.

My friend is not laughing. She’s much less snarky than the blogger, being a gentlewoman, but nevertheless knows equally well how to choose her words for effect.

“That there are American soldiers dying the war against terror on a daily basis is reason enough for us to spend the day in honoring and remembering those who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” she writes.

She’d like to see the old tradition of wearing a red poppy on Memorial Day return. It originated, she wrote, with “a woman by the name of Moina Michael who, in 1918, wrote a poem with the words, “We cherish too, the Poppy Red / that grows on fields where valor led, / it seems to signal to the skies / that blood of heroes never dies.”

My friend thinks Memorial Day should also honor veterans who are still living, but who spend their days enduring physical or mental pain as a result of injuries received on the battlefield.

She’s close to this issue. She has personal experience with it. Her only son is one of the many Viet Nam vets who fell ill following the war from his exposure to Agent Orange. He contracted non-Hodgkins lymphoma and severe and chronic respiratory disease.

“He is and will remain a 100-percent disabled veteran for what remains of his life,” she writes. “It took more than 20 years before symptoms of his disability appeared, as many other veterans of that war have found who were also exposed to that deadly chemical.”

She visits him at his home once a week, and in spite of her age, gives it a thorough cleaning and makes dinner -- because he can’t.

This year, as in years past, she writes that she’ll be flying the American flag in front of her home to honor Americas veterans, both living and dead.

“However, there’s one nagging question which may never have an answer,” she writes. “Will all those soldiers who did not die on the battlefield, but nevertheless will die premature deaths because of war injuries, ever see their names on the Memorial Wall in Washington, DC? They, too, are giving their lives for their country. It’s just taking them longer to die.”

In Flanders Fields
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 faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

- John McCrae (1915)

We Shall Keep the Faith
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

--Moina Michael (1918)

American deaths in the War on Terror
Since war began (3/19/03): 2,464
Since "Mission Accomplished" (5/1/03) 2,327
Since Capture of Saddam (12/13/03): 1,999
Since Handover (6/29/04): 1,598
Since Election (1/31/05): 1,028
Total Wounded (Official): 17,648
Estimated Actual: up to 48,100

Latest American fatality: May 26, 2006

Other Coalition Troops: 214
US Military Deaths in Afghanistan: 295
Iraqi Body Count: 37,918 - 42,288

(numbers courtesy AntiWar.com)

John McCrae: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/poems/inflanders.htm
Moina Michael: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/umbrella/inspiration.htm

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