As Memorial Day approached, there were reminders of the difference between this and Veteran’s Day. My heart doesn’t need reminding. I have enough memories to keep things in focus. I grew up in an Air Force family, and my son spent time in the Army, and many of his friends are still on my prayer list as they continue to serve. Memorial Day is for honoring those we’ve lost.
As I pondered this leading up to this year’s celebrations, I remembered a moment from nearly five years ago, when I received an e-mail notice of a young man’s death in combat. I remembered writing about that, and in memory of that young man’s sacrifice and how it touched me, I want to share those words with you today, from my journal entry dated August 26, 2011.
No More War
I just checked e-mail.
Being involved with the Army, even by having my son involved, has parallels to joining a family. Those of us who choose to participate find strength from the wisdom of those who have gone before as well as from the camaraderie of those alongside. The family is huge, and we don’t all know each other, but we do have certain common bonds, and we do hope to support one another by any physical means possible and, in my case, most often by prayer.
This morning I was greeted with one of the tougher consequences of this commitment. I received a link to a eulogy page in memory of a West Point graduate, member of the Class of 2009. This is the youngest young person I’ve had to meet posthumously across the ether. I’m eye-to-eye with a portrait in front of a flag, a picture of pride and duty, honor, country. It’s a picture that makes a mother’s heart swell, thrilled that her son has chosen to follow an honorable path, that he has done the grueling work necessary to complete his training, and that he is ready to step into the vocation he was called for years ago. It’s a picture we like to hang on walls, give to grandparents, keep around to boast about a bit, even if we aren’t given to boasting. West Point doesn’t do yearbook pictures every year–just “freshman” and “senior” years–so our chances to pull out a wallet photo and beam are limited. There aren’t caps and gowns there, either, though there are diplomas, so there are pictures of that moment of victory – just no formal ones. Still, it’s a man in uniform holding the parchment, and that makes the picture feel different.
The image on the screen makes my heart swell in a different way today. It’s a picture of a past, of a future cut off, of a door closed too soon, too abruptly, too permanently. My chest tightens and the tears come rushing up to my eyes. Be strong. Don’t overreact. Stay calm. But the words swirl in my mind – too young, why, how, when, who, so brave, so sure, and yet . . . I let myself cry, and pray, all at once. I look further down the page, at the other pictures, and let the tears flow freely as I see his young daughter in his arms. No more. Ever. Why?
Then another door closes, this one in my heart. No, it’s more like a book closing. A photo album. Yes, that’s it, and now another album is opening, right beside the one He just closed. Oh, hi, Lord, I didn’t realize You were looking over my shoulder. His finger runs along the text of the eulogy page: “insurgents attacked his unit using an improvised explosive device.” Angry young men killed this young man. But they didn’t do it just for sport, or to show off, like gangsters in a turf war. And they didn’t do it without cost. My eyes fall on the second photo album. Brown faces look back at me, eyes full of pride and duty, honor, country. Not in uniform, but ready to serve. Young and committed. Hopeful, responsible. And cut off. There are children in the pictures, and mothers, and ancient grandfathers. And I realize I’m in a library, with heavy, dark wooden tables covered with photo albums, and shelves full of more albums waiting to be pulled down and examined. The light is clear but muted, pouring in through tall, heavy windows shaded by the eaves of the building and by the trees of the God’s Garden. Faces, so many faces, brown and tan and black and white. The words echo again – too young, why, how, when, who, so brave, so sure . . . but this time there are no tears. This is deeper than that.
The young man whose face is on the eulogy page chose the profession of arms because it is honorable and noble to defend home and country. So did the insurgents in Afghanistan. He did not go there bearing olive branches any more than they invited him there for tea. The truth is, 1LT Timothy J. Steele went hoping for peace, but prepared for war, and things turned out exactly as one might have predicted. But 1LT Steele was not a stupid man. He was not unwise or uninformed in his choice, in his preparation, in his action. He was the best and the brightest. So might have been the insurgents.
What is wrong with this picture?
I realize that 1LT Timothy J. Steele and the insurgents who ended his life were part of a huge deception, a lie so big that it includes the whole of human history, so big we can’t get out of it. It is a lie we tell ourselves to make sure we are right, instead of making sure we are right before we act. “We can win this.” It is the old, old story that we love so well, but
It is not true.
We cannot win at war. No one can.
I am steadily breathing. Blinking. Pondering.
War is never the only answer.
The cost is always too great.
Sitting. Very. Still.
Apart from the pure and holy wrath of God, Who alone can make such judgments . . .
Is there such a thing as a just war?
He closes the album. We sit in silence. I wonder how long it will be before my heart is ready to leave this place, how long until my eyes are ready to go out again into the bright light, outside those windows.
Help me, Lord, to keep seeing, even in the light that blinds.