Looking Backward

Last weekend Karen and I received an impromptu invite from some family members to drive to Bedford, VA, and visit the National D-Day Memorial for Memorial Day. In the absence of other plans, this seemed as good as any, so Monday morning we awoke (much to my chagrin) early and we were off.

The D-Day Memorial isn’t quite completed yet as I understand it, but I was surprisingly impressed with the place. I say surprisingly because war memorials really aren’t my thing, but I firmly believe in observing what a holiday was intended to observe when it rolls around, so we felt it a fitting thing to do. As much as I find myself a pacifist, I think those who have fallen in the barbarism of war should be remembered. Somehow, it is the least we can do.

One of our family members who accompanied us is a vet. Visiting one of these memorials with a vet makes it into a completely different experience. He became very emotional during the visit, and for the remainder of the afternoon I enjoyed dialoguing with him about what may or may not constitute a just war. Those who have served in the military bring a very different perspective to this issue, and when they dialogue with a pacifist such as myself…well, I love our family.

Of course, being that Monday was Memorial Day, there was a ceremony there that didn’t intrigue me so much. I’ve never made any secret of dislike for ceremony, and calling a war monument a “sacred” place as one of the chaplains intoned during one of many prayers left me a bit disconcerted (although he ended the same prayer with a request for peace, which I think does not happen nearly enough). I suffered through the ceremony though, mostly by people-watching. I watched the crowd more than I did the presentation of colors or the playing of “Taps.” I observed those around me salute or place hands over hearts during the National Anthem, and I listened to the way in which the speeches were crafted. To me, the whole ceremonial thing smacked of equating patriotism with faith, which leaves a nasty taste in my mouth (although not as nasty as an opening prayer addressed to the “god of all faiths.” I’m all about being ecumenical, but sheesh…). What I found, however, was that most of the audience, at least those I could observe around me, appeared to be, at best, profoundly moved or, at least, extremely appreciative of the ceremony.

The rest of our visit was spent strolling around the monument itself, with Karen as a brochure-bearing guide, which is the way we tend to engage these things. The artistry in the sculpture was excellent, and the creative manner in which the sculptures were arranged brought my admiration (at one point, the landfall of the invasion itself is re-created with life-size statues, complete with water jetting upward to simulate bullet strikes and a stylized landing craft from which they have emerged). The gardens were arranged as a huge replica of the symbol of Operation Overlord, with a large statue of Eisenhower at the head of the sword, and busts of all of his commanders surrounding the garden, complete with biographical plaques. Even the height of the central monument is significant.

I pondered how different people relate in different ways. Our family members connected primarily through the ceremony, Karen and I primarily through the artistic symbolism of the sculpture and overall design of the Memorial. As much as I dislike ceremony, I recognize its importance, and its difference from ritual (which I find useless a vast majority of the time). Ultimately, though, all of us experienced a deep ushering into remembrance for those fallen in combat and the history of that particular hellish day. That’s what the holiday was for, and the designers of the Memorial enabled this to happen wonderfully. I think I may have found a new appreciation for these things, and certainly have a deeper appreciation of those lives and souls lost during war.

I still stop short of having appreciation of war itself.

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