Monday, May 29, 2006

In memoriam

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My father's ashes were buried last month in Arlington National Cemetery. His grave overlooks the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, you can see monuments to our great Presidents and Commanders-in-Chief. The service was led by one of his childhood friends, now an Episcopalian lay reader. We said the Lord's Prayer, and then Mr. Kittrell continued:

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our friend John; and we commit his remains to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace.
I never expected him to end up there. In all of the 50 years I'd known him, he had been an ardent pacifist, atheist, and self-professed communist. But evidently, before he died he'd told one or two other family members that he wanted to be buried in a military cemetery. "To save money," one of them said he'd told her, though who knows what his real reason was. He wasn't very rational near the end, in any case. Perhaps the two or three years he spent in the army during the Second World War ...more », from age 18 to 20, were the crucially formative years of his life, and his symbolic return to the military at death was an acknowledgement of his true identity. He certainly lived much of his life with images from those years clearly in his sight.

He was born in 1925 in Houston, Texas, the son of two bookkeepers at a lumber company. They had some hard times during the Depression, but eventually my grandfather became a partner in the company, which prospered building big houses in Houston during the post-war boom. My grandparents were Episcopalians. My grandmother had chosen that church for its respectability. (Her father, in a fit of enthusiasm, had become a Jehovah's Witness. But Mamie thought that sort of people weren't the right sort of people.)

So anyway, these two upright Christian Texas businesspeople got together and had a child, a son. They had great expectations of him. And he didn't disappoint, at first. He was athletic, an outstanding student, a model churchgoer, a Boy Scout, a leader. He thought about becoming a minister when he grew up. In 1942, when he was 17 years old and a freshman at the University of Colorado, he volunteered for the Army. He turned down an invitation to attend West Point, and went in as a private. He took part in two difficult campaigns: Leyte (October '44 to July '45—3,500 U.S. forces killed in action, 12,000 wounded) and Okinawa (April '45 to July '45—12,000 U.S. forces killed in action, 36,000 wounded). When he got back home, he was a different person. He decided to devote his life to the abolition of war. In 1963, he wrote a story describing some of the experiences he'd had as a soldier that helped shape that decision. This is his story:

It is mid-April, 1945, and the infantry battle is in full swing on Okinawa. The nights are cool and crisp; the days usually clear and sunny. We are under Japanese howitzer fire, dug in on a hillside overlooking a small Okinawan coastal village which has been razed for weeks by our naval air bombardment. We are attacking toward the south, slowly driving the Japanese into the sea. We overpower them.

The Japanese still manage to maintain artillery fire from their positions in the caves in spite of our heavy artillery, air and naval bombardments. Their batteries can be heard firing: boom, boom, boom, boom, a low muffled series of explosions and then in a few seconds the huge shells fall among us with a whistling crescendo ending in a loud shattering burst of sound as their steel jackets are torn into many high velocity, jagged pieces of potential death and injury. One shell goes over our heads; another lands in front, another to our left and so on. It is nerve-wracking.

We are maintaining an infantry battalion telephone switchboard in our foxhole. We have been under this barrage for almost a week. My sergeant is jittery; I'm fairly calm. I am religious, and I believe God wants me to fight the un-Christian Japanese. I believe that if I am killed I will go to heaven. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I volunteered at the age of 17 to serve my country and to die for it if necessary.

"Cassidy," I said to my sergeant, "just think, those Jap gunners may find a particular setting on their instruments that will put one of those babies right in our foxhole."

"Shut up!" he bellows. He's older and married and has a couple of children. Perhaps it's a bit harder for him to die for his country. There is another salvo coming, coming close; the whistling turns into a high-pitched screech and one lands up the hill about 30 feet right in a foxhole. I think we've lost the radio crew. There is an eruption of canvas, canteens, raincoats, earth from the hole. I keep looking after the dust and debris settle, and I see the radio crew intact peeking from another hole. Two of them had just left the ill-fated hole before the shell hit it. (I saw later a foxhole hit directly by one of those big shells with the men still in it.)

I glance down the hill and see a young man jump out of a hole and start running down the dirt road. Weaponless, he is running toward the rear in panic. It's Harrington, still a teen-ager like myself. He always seemed so tough in pre-combat training, talked so tough—a muscular physical culturist who admired his own well-built body. I hear another rumble as the howitzer batteries blast off again. Again the shells fall close in. When I lift my head to look out, I see no sign of Harrington. It's quiet for ten minutes; they may not fire for an hour or two.

"I'm going back to see if Harrington made it," I tell my sergeant.

He's still shaking and says, "O.K."

I move fast down the road carrying my M1 rifle. I run about 300 yards around a turn in the road, and I find Harrington, or what's left of him. He has been hit directly and terribly mutilated by the big shell. One arm and one leg are blown off, and he is very bloody and warm and dead. I have to leave him there at the roadside and return to the safety of my hole.

I think about his death, so sudden and final. The shell did what it was designed to do: it murdered a 19-year-old boy who was running away from war like a frightened child running to his mother. He was my friend. No, I don't hate the Japanese for doing it; they were told to do it. But I'm beginning to wonder why we have to kill each other.

The next morning I see a dark figure moving about in the rubble of the blasted village below. "Cassidy, nobody's supposed to be down there!"

"No, let's go down and see who it is."

The barrage has lifted temporarily. Our battalion is sitting behind the front lines in reserve. Three of us go down into the village. We find a small, middle-aged Okinawan woman there beside a stone well. She is trying to pull up a bucket of water. She is in a ragged, torn and dirty kimono. She is crying softly, whimpering. Her face is bruised, one eye black, swollen shut, and her left thumb has been lacerated, seems to be hanging by the tendon. There is a heavy sliver of wood driven through her left flank; she points to this. Her wounds all look several days old and dusty. She seems frightened of us armed men. Her home has been destroyed, her family killed or hiding in the caves.

We lead her back up the hill and prepare to send her back to the medics. I bring her a steel helmet full of clean water I pour from a five-gallon can. She stoops and begins to make ineffectual efforts to straighten her hair and to tidy up her appearance using both hands. My eyes fill with tears. These gestures are so feminine and remind me of my mother and sweetheart at home; these gestures are so universally human. Perhaps people in different countries are really not so much different after all, even if they aren't Christians or Americans. I am beginning to hate the war.

We are getting ready to move up to the front. Several days pass, and the enemy barrage is less frequent. I am on guard at 2:00 a.m.; I hear footsteps down the hill below me. I hear a burst from one of our heavy machine guns dug in down there. Then there is silence.

At dawn I look out and see two figures lying on a path along the hillside. It is cold. I approach the figures out of curiosity. An Okinawan girl about ten years old lies on her back with her dress pulled up over her face; she is dead. An older woman, possibly her mother, lies at her side face down in the path. They are both cold and stiff. The two woven rice baskets they were carrying spill rice about them. I am sickened by this sight. In the fighting on Leyte I never saw a child killed....I want to bury them. My sergeant says people from the regiment will do it. We will soon move up.

It is Sunday morning. The word is passed that the chaplain will have communion service at 10:00 a.m. before we leave for the front. I always go to church services; I have since before I can remember. I used to come in on Sunday mornings from Boy Scout camp so I wouldn't miss Sunday school. I got a medal and a wreath around it and at least five bars hanging below to show that I had gone seven years without missing a Sunday. I was an acolyte, too, and sang in the Sunday school choir.

The service is held in a little group of trees further up the hill. I swing my M1 rifle over my shoulder by its strap (you are trained never to go anywhere on the battlefield without taking your rifle—it's supposed to become "part of you" like another appendage) and walk up to join the group of soldiers gathering there. We are all armed; some have grenades in their belts, pistols, bayonets, as well as rifles and carbines on their shoulders. Everybody has on a steel hat.

I can see the blue ocean and down the hillside I can catch a glimpse of the girl-child lying face up with her mother at her side. They are small specks from here and no one else recognizes them or knows they are there. I feel uneasy, almost sick at my stomach. A group of 35 or 40 gather.

The chaplain arrives. He keeps his steel hat on. He begins the ritual of The Lord's Supper with a prayer:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
We then say the Lord's Prayer together, and I keep looking at the specks down the hill....

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven....forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us....but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory....
A great wave of doubt and confusion begins to engulf me. I hear the chaplain reciting:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
I look about me at the grimy men with bowed helmets, at the weapons designed to kill men, weapons which will kill men in the days ahead, and I look back at the specks. Am I mad? Are these only words, meaningless phrases passed on generation after generation? Is there really a kind Father-God who cares for people, who hears their adult prayers? Does God care for us, the Americans, more than for the Japanese or Okinawans? Didn't a man ask Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Did God care for the specks? What about Harrington? Did God love him?

I hear the chaplain's voice break into my thoughts:

....and bring us to everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I wonder who is included in the "us"? I know the chaplain can't see my specks lying dead in the path, but I want him to include them in his prayers. I look out over the village laid flat by weeks of shelling from our off-shore navy guns and planes. I wonder how many "civilians" were killed. I look dimly ahead into the next few weeks, and I wonder how many of us here will still be alive....

The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee preserve thy soul and body into everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.
The wafers are passed and then the grape juice:

The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy soul and body into everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ's blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.
The comfort of the ritual has somehow left my mind for the first time in the seven years since I was confirmed in the church and started taking communion. I feel like a total stranger, like a Jewish person might feel at the same Christian ceremony. For the first time I don't want to drink Jesus's blood not to eat his body. I keep looking at the stiff, cold bodies down the hillside....

....humbly beseeching Thee that all we who are partakers of this Holy Communion may be filled with Thy grace and heavenly benediction.
Then the chaplain prays for the safety of each man about to go into combat and he prays for our victory over the enemy. I still hope he'll somehow mention the specks but he doesn't. And then the benediction:

May the peace of God which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his son Jesus Christ our Lord, and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be among you and remain with you always.
In two days filled with the peace of God which passeth all understanding and the Holy Spirit among us, and the blessing of God Almighty secured for us by the Christian clergyman, we are on the front killing Japanese, Koreans, and Okinawans. I see a second Okinawan child in a cave; it had been roasted to a black crisp by our flamethrower. I see my sergeant shoot a Korean worker four times in the face and chest. He lay hiding unarmed in the grass. He was a young man near my age. My sergeant stands over him and shoots him. He is face up and I can see the blood spurting from his wounds and hear his gurgling groans. I can hear my sergeant back in camp telling his fellows how he shot his first Jap, almost boasting.