Memorial Day – 2016

Memorial Day – 2016

Clam Lake WI – We awoke this morning with blue, nearly cloudless skies, a warm sun working to take off the chill of the night in the forest.  Peering through the trees from our cabin, the water below is as blue as the sky it reflects.  Earlier, the lake had been calm, its reflections from the trees from the other side so precisely mirroring the view; now a slight DSCN1439ripple on the water distorts the reflection.

Later this morning, the small band of area veterans will gather in our small Northwoods hamlet to march to the acre-sized local cemetery where there will be a brief speech or two, a nondenominational reflection by the priest who serves our mission chapel and a 21-gun salute, followed by taps – two trumpet players with one located at the outer side of the park to echo the notes of the nearest player.

The small gathering, old, fragile men holding canes (some wearing baseball caps, noting their Navy ship or Army and Marine units), well-fed middle-aged men and woman and impatient toddlers, will stand in silence for a few moments to honor the dead of past wars.

We will think of Rich, our dear friend of nearly 50 years, who died several years ago at age 93 and is buried here.  As skilled and finicky a carpenter that ever was, Rich lived his entire life in this backwoods area, except for the time in the Army during World War II.  Only in the later years of his life did he relate to me the horrors of participating in four landings on South Pacific islands during World War II.  Of his own fear and his killing of Japanese soldiers while the chief of the machine gun crew he led.  While others would brag of their own service the bar of the resort he and his wife once owned, he would walk away, never disclosing his own true heroism.  (It was only after his death that we learned he received a top medal for bravery.)

The scene at the Clam Lake cemetery, of course, will be replicated in every town, city and hamlet throughout the land.

This day should provide us with meaning, not mere pomp and circumstance.  It’s not enough to puff up our chests and proclaim how great our nation is.  Let’s not be sunshine patriots.

Mostly, this day should remind us of how widely devastating war is.  The impact of our 20th and 21st century wars is shown by the fact that nearly every community has a War Memorial listing the young men and women who were killed in those conflicts.  And, we in the United States have never had to face death in any numbers as terrible as those suffered by the peoples in Europe in World War II, by the Vietnamese, Laotians and others in the Vietnam Conflict and more recently by the Iraqis and Afghans in the current continuing fighting in the Mideast.

This is not a plea for “peace at any cost;” sometimes conflict may be needed, but the lesson must be that war comes “as a last resort.”  Conflicts that begin small have a tendency to escalate into terrible long-lasting and devastating events that go on and on.  (Witness that World War I began over the assassination of a minor monarch in Sarajevo in 1914.)

Today we have a major Presidential candidate promising to “make America great again” by means not quite outlined.  He wins great huzzahs when he intones how he’d take care of our world-wide crises.  We must not blindly succumb to such bombast.  If such boastful declarations mean dropping bombs or unleashing our military might, the consequences could be too terrible to imagine.

We will celebrate Memorial Day in this peaceful forest hopeful that the memory of our dead soldiers, sailors, marines and others will provide us with the knowledge to look for peaceful means to resolve our conflicts.  Ken Germanson – May 30, 2016


Hiroshima: A memory persists for 70 years

Perhaps no date stands out more in my long life than August 6, 1945.  It was two days before my 16th birthday and it had been a warm summer day.  I had biked home, carrying my ragtag golf clubs on my back after playing 27 holes of golf.  It was six o’clock and my parents sat in the living room listening to a news report on radio. They had shocked expressions.

I heard the radio announcer state in somber words, describing “a bomb equivalent in size to 100 blockbusters.” What was that all about? I asked my parents.

My dad said that we (meaning the U.S.) had dropped something called an atomic bomb on a Japanese city called Hiroshima.  “It may mean the end of the war,” he added.

The relief I might have felt by the possible ending of World War II was blunted by my realization that our country had caused terrible devastation, even though at that time I th-2believed, along with just about everyone else that “the Japs deserved it.”  Hadn’t we sung — and hadn’t I plunked out the song on the piano — “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap?”   (I feel shamed today to write “Jap,” but feel it’s needed here to show the tenor of the times.)

The concept of 100 blockbusters blew my mind. That would mean 100 blocks were destroyed by one bomb; the United States had instituted the use of blockbuster bombs on German cities late in the war and it was not until many years later that I learned of the terrible devastation Allied bombers had done to cities like Dresden.

President Obama has announced that he will be visiting Hiroshima at the end of May, the first US president to make such a visit since the tragic bombing more than seventy years ago. A debate has arisen over whether the President should apologize for the devastation.  Whether such an apology is necessary or not, it’s not mine to answer.

There are lessons we should learn from Hiroshima. I remember seeing early news photos from the bombing and noting there was but one relatively tall, slender building still standing among the devastation.

One year later, one of our next-door neighbor’s sons showed snapshots he had taken while in Hiroshima as a member of an army occupational force.  Even though his black-th-3and-white photos were of the tiny-size typical of the era, the impact couldn’t have been more striking.  There, standing like a lone sentinel was the same singular building amid the rubble, a tragic symbol of the bombing that cost some 200,000 lives.

More than anything else the killing of those Japanese citizens, including many women and children, dramatized the terrible losses that are foisted upon all of us by war.  A scene from Erich Maria Remarque’s famous book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” has further pointed toward the terrible foolishness of war.  That book, written from a German soldier’s point of view during the First World War, has the hero seeking shelter in a bomb crater and finding a dying French soldier in the same shelter.  After a few tense moments, the French soldier dies.  Guiltily, the German soldier searches the dead man’s pockets, finding a wallet, containing a small picture of a smiling woman and a young child.  It was obviously the man’s family, a family not much unlike his own.  The German solder cries.

Some of us hoped immediately after World War II that we could take steps to end the terrible nationalism that brought about the wars of that Century; why not form a federal world government — modeled after the U.S. Constitution that in 1787 developed a process to bring together our disparate states into a central government that could ensure peace between the states?  The dream failed, though a hamstrung United Nations emerged.

Wars haven’t ended; in fact today’s world is spawning an epidemic of violence.  Now, however, added to the fear of one nation fighting another, we have tribes and terror groups that know no borders engaged in hateful killing sprees.

Those of us who preach peace and urge restraint on “revenge” and “retribution” are castigated as being “weak” and “dreamers.”  Let’s reject that: we recognize the need to sometimes bear arms to enforce peace, but we must resist the inclinations — so often stirred by ambition politicians — to act first in starting a fight, to use a pledge of “making America great again” as an excuse to start bombing again — and killing many innocents along the way.  Ken Germanson, May 15, 2016.