At 4:30 a.m. On April 12, 1861, B/General P. G. T. Beauregard gave the order for the first shot to be fried by the recently seceded State of South Carolina upon Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor. How strange it is that the ball which exploded upon the ramparts that morning would impact my life.
I am a son of the South. I didn't ask to be, but I am. I was raised in Southern culture, trained in Southern manners, and steeped in Southern history. Somewhere along my path to adulthood, I realized that Southerners identified themselves by region far more than do those from other parts of the United States. I think I know why.
In other writings on this blog, I've related a common encounter between me and my great-grandmother. She had been a little girl during the “War of Northern Aggression”, as she referred the immediate aftermath of General Beauregard's order to fire. When General Sherman marched his army through Georgia, he marched it smack dab through her family's farm. She wanted to be sure I knew what wretched creatures those Yankees were.
“Come here, boy,” she order as she sat on the sofa in Mama's living room. I'd approach her and stand where her gnarly finger pointed. She'd reach forward and hook my shirt with that finger, pull it up, and then with her other hand she'd point at my navel and say, “See where the Yankees shot you when you were a baby?”
I tell that story to relate why we “Southern boys” relate to being from our region. Those of my generation, perhaps, were the last to be indoctrinated by our grandparents, but subtlety it happened.
I relate this with the assumption you can do the math. I have entered my seventieth decade on this earth. The Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Norther Aggression, or whatever you choose to call it occurred 150 years ago. And yet, when I heard on the news the reminder of the anniversary, my mind immediately identified me as standing on the shore looking out at that fort and not the other way around. I'm an educated person; I can, at least, put forth a somewhat articulate argument that I am reasonably intelligent. I am well-traveled. I am tolerant. I am accepting. And (here it comes, Granny) I was once married to a woman from New Jersey. Nevertheless, I am a son of the South and my Granny made sure I knew it was those damn Yankees who burned her farm.
I'm thinking back on Granny, her farm, her detesting Yankees, her gnarly finger in my navel, and I'm wondering if there's another great-grandmother in another land occupied by troops marching under the same flag as those who burned Granny's farm whose finger is pointed at a child's navel and who is saying, “See where the American's shot you when you were a baby?”
My theory is the reason my Southern generation identified ourselves with our region was simply we were raised by the only generation of Americans whose homes were occupied by an invading army. Knowing the impact I can but shutter at the effect our occupying army is having on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Think of the detrimental outcome of my great-grandmother's prejudices toward those “invaders” and how she tried to pass it on to me. Think of how long it took the South to embrace Civil Rights, to foster education, to break out of it's narrow view and to move beyond the Civil War. And remember that those “invaders” were Americans, also. They had a shared history with those they fought; the spoke the same language; they revered the same forebears; they even sang songs together, North and South together, across the battlefield between them. With all that commonality, still my Granny felt compelled to pass on her feelings.
No matter how just we feel our cause may be, in any conflict, we will never be recipients of the respect we think we are due when our army sits in an Afghanistan or Iraq grandmother's backyard. The longer we are there the longer the resentment will be remembered.
Andrew Bacevich's book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, presents the present day dangers of our militaristic approach to international relations and perceived dangers. He quotes President Dwight Eisenhower speaking of the consequences of pursuing the Cold War. Eisenhower, of course, spoke in the 1950s:
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. i
On the NPR/American Public Media program Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett once spoke with an Army Chaplain who had returned from Iraq. He made one observation concerning the militaristic response then being played out in the Islamic land: “You cannot,” he said, “kill an idea with a bullet.” ii
I worry about the consequences that will be coming from what is now being referred to by the military command as “The Long War.” I worry about that Islamic child whose grandmother has her finger in his navel. I worry because I know how deeply entrenched I became in being a Southerner because an invading army occupied my Granny's farm. I worry because Granny's lessons whispered in my memory when I heard about the anniversary of the start of the war Granny lived through. The word “Fort Sumter” triggered my memory. For those little children across the sea with the word be “Drone,” or “Abu Ghraib” or some other trigger to the memory.
I fear the consequence of this militaristic approach will be with us at least 150 years. _____________________________________________________________________
She’s been heavily on my mind lately, for some reason. For four years I lurked around her blog.
Her first blog post read: “So this is the beginning for me, I guess. I never thought I’d start my own weblog... All I could think, every time I wanted to start one was “But who will read it?” I guess I’ve got nothing to lose... but I’m warning you - expect a lot of complaining and ranting. I looked for a ‘rantlog’ but this is the best Google came up with.
“A little about myself: I’m female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That’s all you need to know. It’s all that matters these days anyway.”
She signed that post as “Riverbend.” From that first post on Sunday, August 17, 2003, she provided us with another set of eyes with which to view this world in which we live, another view of military occupation, social upheaval, and the struggle of a young woman to find meaning in it all.
A later post on that first day of her blog read:
“Waking up anywhere in Iraq these days is a trial. It happens in one of two ways: either slowly or with a jolt. The slow process works like this: you’re hanging in a place on the edge of consciousness, mentally grabbing at the fading fragments of a dream ... something creeps up around, all over you - like a fog. A warm heavy fog. It’s the heat ... 120F on the cooler nights. Your eyes flutter open and they search the dark in dismay - the electricity has gone off. The ceiling fan is slowing down and you are now fully awake. Trying to sleep in the stifling heat is about as productive as trying to wish the ceiling fan into motion with your brain. Impossible.
“The other way to wake up, is to be jolted into reality with the sound of a gun-shot, explosion or yelling. You sit up, horrified and panicked, any dream or nightmare shattered to oblivion. What can it be? A burglar? A gang of looters? An attack? A bomb? Or maybe it’s just an American midnight raid?”
That began my fascination with the life and the search for meaning as it was unveiled by Riverbend. For four years I saw the happenings in Iraq not only through the lens of CNN but through the eyes of Riverbend.
She escaped Iraq and became a refugee in Syria in October of 2007. She wrote: “Syria is a beautiful country - at least I think it is. I say ‘I think’ because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for beauty.”
That was Riverbend’s last post to her blog “Baghdad Burning.” I hope her life came to fruition. But like so many who were captivated by the words of such a beautiful spirit in a time of horrible upheaval I constantly wonder if she is okay, if she has found happiness and beauty and security.
Ah, Riverbend, I miss and lift prayers for you. And I hope that someday the promise you held out to all of us who read your words will be realized: “ ... I’ll meet you ‘round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend ....”
I must have been thirteen. I know because my memory puts me in the house on Heatherwood Drive in Decatur. Also, I was of an age where I could be left alone, but was still immature enough I went prowling.
The house was quiet and cool, summer cool, a cool resulting from the open windows and the shade from the giant oak trees that lined our property line. It was quiet also. I was big enough to pick up Daddy’s desk chair. I moved it to the door of his closet. There on the shelf above the hanging clothes were the cardboard shoe boxes. I’d seen them over and over since we moved into that house. I knew there were no shoes in them.
Pulling the boxes down I arranged them neatly on Mother’s and Daddy’s bed. With cool deliberation of a child determined not to be bound by parental restrictions I opened the first box. Photos filled the box. Some had a brownish tinge to them, evidence of the stage of photography in that day. I sat down on Daddy’s chair. These pictures were fascinating. The pictures were of soldiers.
I stared at them in fascination. Wait! There was Daddy; and that was John sitting with him on a footlocker beside an army cot. They each had a beer bottle in their hands which they held upward as if toasting the cameraman. They had spectacular smiles on their faces. I would be many years older before I realized the contents of that bottle has much to do with the nature of those smiles. Another picture was of soldiers playing baseball. Wait! There was Walter, Daddy’s friend just down the street. Walter was at bat. Daddy was clapping his hands in the background. The rest of the pictures in that box were more of Daddy and his buddies, laughing, playing, joking, drinking. There were a lot of pictures of drinking. I replaced the pictures in the order I’d found them stacking the carefully the same way lest he discover I’d transgressed into his private memories.
The pictures in the next box were different. Even a naive kid as I recognized these as pictures of bombs impacting the ground and taken from the bomber formation, aircraft sitting on the runway with holes in the fuselage, aircraft burning at the end or the side of runways. There were also pictures of bodies, bodies being removed from the inwards of B-17s. What was this. There were no smiling faces in these pictures. These were images of death, cold, brutal, death.
The house was more quiet than usual. The summer cool had become chilling. I stared at one picture. How could a plane fly with that many holes in it?
It was that summer day, I first discovered my Daddy was a hero. He’d gone to war a kid and come home an adult with memories no one should have to endure. I thought of all Daddy’s friends who occupied the pictures in the first box. I thought about the second box as I, now with reverence, replaced it on the shelf. Instinctively I knew why they never talked about the war when they gathered on our patio to laugh and drink and dance with their wives.
Daddy never knew how I bonded to him that day. I never confessed my transgression. But I now knew why Daddy cried whenever the flag passed. My Daddy was a veteran.
I sat myself on the sofa. The day had been busy, appointments kept, promises fulfilled, and commitments to help the less fortunate were gathered in. I fired up the Mac in preference to the TV.
The PBS program Frontline was on his list of shows to view. The program this day was Obama’s War, a documentary of the current fighting in Afghanistan. It was probably less than five minutes into the show when the images of shock appeared.
“War,” said General Sherman, “is hell.” It’s worse than that. But war for the vast majority of us is so impersonal. “Eight Americans were killed in combat operations in Afghanistan today ....” reports the news anchor. Funny how little emotion the number “eight” engenders. Maybe that’s why so many wars are fought. As long as I’m sitting here and the war’s over there and it’s “eight” that are killed. Well, I’m here and the soldiers are there; and I don’t know anyone named “eight.”
There, on my Mac, the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on July 2nd, were firing their automatic weapons into a line of trees off into the distance, the point from which they were receiving fire. Then suddenly, there on the ground, lay Lance Corporal Charles “Seth” Sharp, a twenty year old whose home was ten miles from the sofa on which I sat, with a hole in his neck from the projectile that tore him apart.
I watched his buddies carry him away from the front back toward the rear, his blood staining his BDU. I heard the commentator say, “Lance Corporal Sharp did not make it.”
Strange, I have no empathy with “eight.” But I am emotionally ripped asunder when I know one of those “eight” is “Seth Sharp. Now the war is personal.
I remember his funeral. They turned out in thousands to line the local highways when Seth came home under the canopy of the flag to whose allegiance he served. For hours they came to express sympathy to his family who shook every single hand.
I’m feeling a bit frustrated and angry now. Major John Morris, a Chaplain during the fighting in Iraq, said on Speaking of Faith. “You can’t kill and idea with a bullet.” It seems to me what we’re up against in these wars is a conflict of ideas, and the only way to defeat an idea is a better idea.
Excuse the rant, but I’m a little disturbed now. The war has once again been made personal. Perhaps we would have less wars if they were personal to those who vote to fund them. Maybe a qualification for voting for war should be to have once stood in the line of fire and felt the warm blood of your buddy splatter on you to the point your fear became so great you pissed your pants.
Memorial Day is the time we set apart to honor and remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
There’s a much worse way to die in defense of one’s country, however, than by a bullet or an Improvised Explosive Device.
When I was a small child, a mere toddler, my grandfather would get me up every morning. I would go with him to the kitchen to plug in the coffee pot. It was my chore, even though he did have to lift me up to cabinet level for the performance of my duty. From the kitchen we headed to the bathroom where I would watch him shave. And then he’d lift me up to stand on the sink. He’d comb my hair, flipping the front back in that special way. And then he’d ask, “Who do you look like?”
There was only one correct answer. I learned it early. “I look like my Uncle Bobby,” I’d say, and his smile would beam.
“You sure do,” he told me.
Much of my early life was centered upon my Uncle Bobby. I didn’t know him. He’d gone off to war shortly after my birth. He flown his missions dutifully from England over France and Germany. He was a radio operator on a B-17. But some where along the way the anti-aircraft fire from the Germans caught up with the crew of which my Uncle was a part. Uncle Bobby escaped the flaming plane. He jumped and his chute did open. He made it to the ground through the flak and arms fire. He made it into the waiting clutches of the German army. The rest of the war he spent in a Prisoner of War Camp.
He was in that camp when my grandfather worked out his anxiety and his worry by doting on me. “Who do you look like?” As long as he could convince himself I looked like Uncle Bobby, then Uncle Bobby would always be there.
Uncle Bobby did come home when his camp was liberated. Imagine my expectation. I looked like Uncle Bobby, and Uncle Bobby, my hero, was coming home.
He didn’t remain my hero long. Uncle Bobby, I soon learned, was mean. He was just mean to the core, and he took a great delight in scaring and tormenting me. Oh, how I was disappointed. “Who do you look like?”
Mama told me later that something happened when my Uncle Bobby was a soldier. Somewhere over there, in the air above Germany or on the ground in the German prison camp, a part of my Uncle Bobby died and as a result the boy who came home was not the boy my grandfather saw looking back at him through my image in the mirror each morning.
The love of my Uncle Bobby’s family helped him resurrect a goodly part of that dead self after decades. But the death he suffered from war was, in many ways, worse than that from a bullet. It was a death that implanted demons within him who tortured him unmercifully.
War is a sickening thing. There is a wretched smell that characterizes it. The source of that smell is death, a physical death and a much more horrible walking death. Pray for our soldiers who return having seen and felt so much death.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept....” (Psalm 137)
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