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November 11, 2009
The early morning silence here at the convent is broken only slightly by the drone of an airplane overhead. A memory: I am a little girl, and I am afraid that we will be bombed. I hold my breath whenever a plane flies over our house, waiting for hell to explode around me. I exhale only when it begins to recede.

You may recall that our Department of Defense had a different name -- it was called the War Department until 1947. I used to have a briefcase that had belonged to my father with those words stamped on it -- I wish I still did, as it would be worth some money today. The name change reflected several ideas whose time had come after the Second World War: the need for an ongoing military establishment in a permanent state of readiness, the principle of civilian control of the military, and the powerful American expectation that all our wars were really defensive wars. Immediately, wordsmiths smelled a euphemism. Since 1947, we have had several engagements whose defensive necessity has been considerably south of obvious.

That said, dread is a potent thing. We accurately sense our vulnerability, and want to believe in what we are told can save us. Not much can, of course: it is hard to defend against a man on a bus with a backpack, an innocent-looking rental truck loaded with explosives, a faraway computer. We could spend the flower of an entire generation in battle and still be in as much danger from these things as ever. Military might cannot touch them.

We associate Veterans' Day with old people: ancient men in the uniforms of their youth, walking or being driven in parades. Bright paper poppies reappear in people's buttonholes, and some remember the old poem that prompts the wearing of them. It is a day of memory, memory leaving us as the old men leave us forever.

But we are at war now, and soldiers are young. And the war dead never grow old. Let us not, for love of either the living or the dead, romanticize their experience.


Here is the well-known poem that has prompted all those paper poppies, written on the battlefield. And a second, also written there, by one who did not return.
In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--John McCrae, 1915

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-- Wilfrid Owen, 1917

(Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translates thus: It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.)
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