OT: Just a name, dead and forgotten

My mother, who’s never much cared about her family history, had lunch with a second cousin yesterday who brought some pictures to share. In the course of the conversation, she had the information confirmed that her grandfather had another brother whom she had never heard of.

The brother was re-discovered accidentally at my uncle‘s funeral, when they were all walking through the family plot and ran into a unkempt gravesite with the relevant family name but a Christian name no one recognized. They were worried about the state of the grave; it turns out the cousin who’s been maintaining them the last four years or so didn’t know this name, either, and so assumed someone else was responsible. They checked the baptismal register and confirmed his existence and relationship. Some further checking of parish records revealed that the grave in Wisconsin is empty; he died of wounds in World War I. So I was wrong when, on a trip years ago through Flanders, I said that I didn’t have anyone in those fields.

This is a typical family strategy for us: we simply opt not to discuss painful events, until the pain is forgotten by everyone who is still alive and the survivors know nothing. I wonder, though, about all the years when someone went to those graves and remembered him — who that would have been, even. His parents and brothers and sisters; did he have a fiancée? No one is alive, anymore, who remembers, and in a sense, that’s not bad, because with the death of the memory the pain dies as well. I often find myself wishing for my own life that I remembered less. Not that such omissions are unproblematic, of course. The point of Veterans Day, I think, is somehow related to this problem of the tension between memory and forgetting — we want to recognize people’s pain; pain recedes into the past; and yet “never again” is an important recognition if we want to stop the sort of carnage that characterized the twentieth century. So, in a greater sense, of course, whether or not I know anyone who died in the Great War, I have been taught to believe that I do have people in those fields. We keep track of the “unknown” soldiers because we assume they have someone, somewhere — and because in the sense that we agree to believe that they died in all of our interests, they are ours. And so we say, too, that they are known to G-d.

Monday is Veterans’ Day, and my campus has the day off. Events are scheduled, but the parking lots around campus suggest that the long weekend will be more the occasion for relaxation than commemoration. As troubling as I find that — because this campus enrolls a lot of past, current, and future servicemen and -women, and many buildings and departments have memorials to deceased military alumni — I also find it reassuring, that we live in a country where young people relax, and we are able to forget the wars of the past.

And yet we also forget that we are still fighting wars elsewhere, in the name of this cause or that, and that the populations to whom we bring our military presence, most of whom have little control over the policies and actions that generate the wars, cannot simply relax and forget the drones flying over their heads. Our permission to forget stands in a dismal relationship to the necessity that they watch their native skies in fear.

On Veterans’ Day, I will honor the sacrifices of the veterans in my family, living and dead, and this time I will remember the “forgotten” brother, too, and everything that I can imagine was lost. And the sacrifices of all the soldiers who “belong” to me, those whom G-d knows.

On Veterans’ Day, I will also pray for a time when humans will live without war — when forgetfulness of individual pain and sacrifice descends and that the lesson of the crosses, row on row, is truly no longer personal or family or national honor, or even the honor of the cause in question, but the sheer sorrow, pointlessness, and waste of mass destruction. I will pray for a time when we have fully recognized that as much as we honor them, their sacrifices were not redemptive — that they died for the shared human incapacity to do better at the times in which they lived. When we recognize that nothing about war is redemptive. When we stop asking or forcing people to make sacrifices like these.

~ by Servetus on November 9, 2012.

9 Responses to “OT: Just a name, dead and forgotten”

  1. As always, a thoughtful, thought provoking post. We are dedicating a new veteran’s memorial in my hometown. My thoughts go out to all who have lost loved ones and all who are right now waiting for someone to come home. Pax.


  2. Thank you for this post. There are many family members who I wish I knew about, my Dads family never kept in touch with them. Sad really, but it is what they did and the family from over seas also. There is no way I could find this info online with the way to common maiden name I had. It would lead to dead ends. My middle school son was one of four to play Taps today at 11:11, as he is one of the trumpets in the band. Veterans Day is a important day in our house, not just for those that are gone, but still alive. My husband has three of his uncles still alive that are WWII vets, 2 are 94 and one is 93.


  3. […] same every year, so if you’re interested in what I think, here are posts from previous years: 2012; and 2011; and […]


  4. […] or the personal memories of our loved ones. But at the same time, I say: Please don’t give me “never again” if we’re not going to try honestly for never again. If it’s only a moment of silence during a toast to “absent comrades” — […]


  5. […] believe things. I hesitate to say that because I am so often misunderstood, as when I say that I am skeptical of the notion of redemptive sacrifice. Collateral damage of the post-Vietnam period, and the last four years in specific: the idea that […]


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