A guest sermon I offered this weekend at First Christian Church – Disciples of Christ in Eugene, Oregon.
“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”
Good morning and thank you so much for offering me the honor of sharing some thoughts with you today, on this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Though I have not served in our military, many of my family members have been soldiers, both here in the US and in other parts of the world where they’ve lived. My grandfather was a US Army infantryman in France during World War I. My father served during the Korean War, though he was never shipped overseas.
My mother’s family are Moroccan Jews who now mostly live in Israel. During World War II, my mom’s family lived in Casablanca, which was under German occupation. During the 1940s France had ruled Morocco as a colony, but the Nazis took it over not long after Paris fell. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Rosette, joined the French underground, and nobody knew much about what she did. She was gone for weeks at a time and then would suddenly show up for a few days. One time she showed up late at night at the home of one of her sisters with a small group of men. Her terrified sister let them in and, in later years, all she could say about the visit was that the men brought a whole bunch of weapons into the house, hid them in a back room, and Rosette told her to just say nothing and people would come by soon to get them.
Then there are my many, many aunts and uncles and cousins who have served and currently serve in the Israeli army. My mother’s brother, my Uncle Yossi, was the sole survivor of his army unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat had launched a very effective surprise attack and the army was scrambling to call up reservists. When Yossi’s unit’s call-up notice went out over the radio, he went to get his boots from their usual place, but couldn’t find them. Turned out his mother had been tidying and had moved them. By the time he found them and hustled to the base, his tank unit had already been sent to the front. The commanding officer placed him with a different departing unit. As it happened, all of the others in his intended unit were killed in an explosion. The misplaced boots saved his life.
Yossi is an interesting case in point. In addition to the trauma and survivor’s guilt he’s had to bear over that pair of boots, he also has told my mom about terrible recurring memories and dreams from his experience in combat. In particular, he is haunted by a flash moment in which he and an Egyptian soldier were suddenly face to face, a few meters apart. The two men shared a moment of horrified shock and recognition, and then both moved to fire. Yossi fired first, but for years struggled to cope with the image of the Egyptian young man’s body.
On this weekend when we contemplate those of our fellow Americans who have fallen in battle, we are drawn to personal memories of war, memories that become family stories that get passed through the generations. A lot of those stories give us insight into the meaning of friendship. In the Book of Proverbs, we find these words: “There are friends we have who cause us great harm, but there’s also the kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother.” And in Ecclesiastes, also on the theme of friendship, we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toils: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity the person who falls and has no one to help them up.”
I’d like to consider these two short, simple biblical passages in light of the themes that Memorial Day weekend evokes – themes of war, friendship, memory, and community. Some of what I have to share comes from people whose experiences with war have left them passionately opposed to war in all or most of its forms, and in sharing those thoughts I want to be clear that I honor in the deepest way the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers and the pain and loss of their families. We need to be able, in a house of God, to attempt to look at war through lenses of honesty and concern for the divine image that is present in every human being, though we also need to stand in solidarity and true friendship with all who are serving or have served, and with all who have given their lives for us in times of war. We need to do both, and doing both with sensitivity and candor honors the dead and the truth alike.
I’d like to start with the words of Vera Brittain. She served as an English army nurse during
World War I, and wrote one of the most widely read memoirs of the war, Testament of Youth. In it she describes her years as a female student at Oxford – at a time when few
women went to university – and the beginnings of her romance with a brilliant fellow student named Roland. She includes many of the letters the two lovers sent one another after Roland quit school to enlist. Roland’s early letters describe his enthusiasm for getting into battle, and his later letters from the battlefield become increasingly disillusioned and numb. Of course, like so many European young men of that generation, Roland never made it home.
In one of his early letters, Roland discusses having the option to avoid fighting if he continues his education at Oxford. He wrote, “It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty . . . I feel that I am meant to take an active part in this War. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very ennobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorizing. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.”
At first, Vera shared Roland’s yearning for and fascination with battle, as well as his sense of duty, even his excitement, though she also worried for him. Motivated by her own sense of duty, Vera ended up leaving her studies to become a nurse, first tending an ever-growing flood of wounded at a hospital in the south of England, and then serving on the battlefields of France. Describing the way that war worked on her core being, she wrote: “I had not yet realized – as I was later to realize through my own mental surrender – that only a process of complete adaptation, blotting out tastes and talents and even memories, made life sufferable for someone face to face with war at its worst. I was not to discover for another year how completely the War possessed one’s personality the moment that one crossed the sea, making England and all the uninitiated marooned within its narrow shores seem remote and insignificant.”
Her experiences ultimately shattered her previously romantic feelings about war. Some months into her service, she wrote: “Some of the things in our ward are so horrible that it seems as if no merciful dispensation of the Universe could allow them and one’s consciousness to exist at the same time.”
Almost a century later, the American journalist and war correspondent, Chris Hedges, published a book called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. In it he shares some of what he’s come to believe about war in light of his field reporting from war zones of the early 80s through the beginning of this century – places like Argentina, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Hedges, by the way, was captured and imprisoned by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the Persian Gulf War and was lucky to survive.
One of his main claims – his central observation – is that even though we take for granted the adage that war is terrible, that it is at best a necessary evil, that even as we honor the valor and sacrifice of our fallen soldiers we also hope to honor their memory by living in a future world without war – even though we say and believe all those things, the truth about us, as a species, is somewhat darker. Hedges describes war as a powerful intoxicant, an addictive drug that is powerful, energizing, and gripping. He writes, “The myth of war entices us. . . . The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men, schooled in the notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood, that only in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in battle, willingly join the great enterprise. . . .” His words brought me back to the young and initially enthusiastic Vera Brittain and Roland.
To illustrate his point, he offers this memory from a time when he had been covering the “Dirty War” in Argentina. Hedges writes:
The military junta that ruled Argentina, and was responsible for killing 20,000 of its own citizens during the “Dirty War,” in 1982 invaded the Falkland Islands, which the Argentines called the Malvinas. The junta, which had been on the verge of collapse and beset by violent street demonstrations and nationwide strikes in the weeks before the war, instantly became the saviors of the country. . . . The invasion transformed the country.
Reality was replaced with a wild and self-serving fiction, a legitimization of the worst prejudices of the masses and paranoia of the outside world. The secret interior world arrayed against Argentina became one of strange cabals, worldwide Jewry trotted out again to be beaten like an old horse, vast subterranean webs that had as their focus the destruction of the Argentine people. . . .
All that was noble and good was embodied, like some unique gene, in the Argentine people. Stories of the heroism of the Argentine military – whose singular recent accomplishment was the savage repression of its own people – filled the airwaves. Friends of mine, who a few days earlier had excoriated the dictatorship, now bragged about the prowess of Argentine commanders. . . .
Cars raced through the city streets honking horns and waving the blue and white Argentine flag. Argentines burst into the national anthem and ecstatic cheering at sporting events. . . . I had spent nights with Argentine friends talking of a new Argentina, one that would respect human rights, allow basic freedoms, and perhaps put on trial the generals responsible for the Dirty War. Now such talk was an anathema, even treasonous. . . . This was my first taste of nationalist triumphalism in wartime. . . . It taught me a crucial lesson that I would carry into every other conflict. Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours, is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces and at times erases the anxiety of individual consciousness.
Hedges explores another major idea in his book. He writes about the role that technology plays in modern war. “Men [and women] in modern warfare,” he writes, “are in service to technology. Many combat veterans never actually see the people they are firing at nor those firing at them. . . To be sure, soldiers . . . pay a tremendous personal, emotional, and spiritual price. But . . . equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later. By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men [and women] in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them.”
It’s his last point that brings me to the final thoughts I’d like to share with you. And it brings us back to the two biblical verses we’re considering – texts that speak to us about the meaning of friendship. The verse from Proverbs reads, again, “There are friends we have who cause us great harm, but there’s also the kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother.” Hedges makes the case that, when it comes to our combat veterans, we as a society are not very good friends. When we recruit our young to fight for us, we promise a lot – the chance to gain strength, gain confidence, learn valuable skills, be of service, become brave, and possibly even get a college education paid for. And those are not empty words. But the package that’s presented is a partial truth, not the whole truth. There’s also the truth about War that Vera Brittain and Chris Hedges, and countless others who’ve experienced war, have returned to tell us. And that is that War is a friend who may offer great things, but he’s also a friend who causes us great harm.
Hedges’ other critique is that we, as a society, too often fail to be the “kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother” for our returning combat veterans. Too often, for our veterans who are struggling with their post-war lives, they have been, as Hedges stated, “discarded, left as broken men [and women] in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them.” I realize that some of that has shifted in a positive direction, in part thanks to journalistic reporting on the appalling conditions at Walter Reed Hospital during the most recent Iraq War, and in part thanks to the sincere and hard work of American military psychologists and commanders who have worked to eliminate social stigma or shame associated with PTSD or other personal struggles that some returning vets face. There is far more social acceptance and understanding of these patterns of woundedness today than in generations past, but, overall, our commitment to provide the resources and the true friendship our biblical texts talk about lags far behind our growing understanding.
A quick family story: when I was in my early 20s, in the 1990s, I lived in San Francisco. Two of my Israeli uncles – men in their 50s at the time, both veterans of multiple wars – came to visit the U.S., and I was their tour guide in San Francisco. As we walked down one of the main boulevards of the city, we passed a lot of homeless people sitting on the street, often leaning against tall buildings and displaying cardboard signs asking for help. My uncles were surprised to see so many people struggling in this way, openly, on the streets of the wealthiest and mightiest country on earth. One of them asked me to translate what was written on the signs these people were displaying. I complied, translating into Hebrew the various clipped tales of misfortune on the signs: “out of work, 2 kids,” “sick for months, evicted, anything would help,” etc. A few of the signs read, “Vietnam Veteran – please help.”
After a short time, my Uncle Yeshua shook his head in disgust and said, “It’s really horrible that some of those homeless men back there would tell lies like that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He continued, “The ones whose signs said they were veterans from the Vietnam War. It’s disgusting for people to pretend that they served in the war just to win sympathy. I feel sorry for the other ones, but not people who would lie about a thing like that.”
Still confused, I said, “But, Uncle Yeshua, I doubt any of those guys are lying. A really large percentage of the homeless in America are military veterans. Many of them have trauma or are struggling with other kinds of mental health issues related to their wartime experiences. It’s a big issue here.”
He stopped in his tracks and looked at me. “That’s impossible,” he said.
“What’s is?” I asked.
“It’s inconceivable,” he said. “It’s inconceivable that a country – no, not any country, the greatest country – would allow that to happen to any of its soldiers. It just can’t be true.”
I didn’t know what to say. “I wish it wasn’t true, Uncle. But I’m afraid it is.” I never could tell whether or not I had convinced him.
Memorial Day is upon us and it is important. It’s a sacred day. Like most people I know, I feel a sense of embarrassment that there are so many department store sales and long-weekend-getaways that tend to overshadow the actual purpose of the day. As we remember and honor the very real sacrifices of all those brave men and women who served our country and fell, let us also remember that it is our duty to be a society that befriends every soldier who returns from battle, and the families of all those who have died or come back with serious struggles. Ecclesiastes tells us that it’s not good for us to be isolated and alone. If we have a true friend, and we fall down, a friend can help us back up. We owe it to one another to befriend our vets who have stumbled and struggled in their post-war lives, just as we owe it to our fallen heroes to lovingly honor their sacrifice, just as we owe it to our humanity to try to understand and beware of the intoxicating power of war.
God bless you and thank you for listening.
 Prov 18:24
 Eccl 4:9-10