Playing On a Grave: A Veterans Day Reflection
As I sat in a snowy chair outside the university library and listened to an Afghanistan vet deliver the Veterans Day commemorative speech, with the freezing Colorado wind on my face, I realized something so obvious yet immensely deep: as a country and people, we are directly linked to the rest of the world through our experience of war as a painful part of the human narrative. We share this experience intimately with bigger and more powerful countries like Japan, the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, and Russia; and even more so with unlucky countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Poland, Afghanistan and let’s not forget, the fateful Marshall Islands. The fate of the world was written in blood on the sandy beaches of Beliliou. A defining moment of the history of the world happened on our shores.
Elise Boulding, a prominent peace scholar and sociologist, coined the phrase “200-year present”; a way of thinking of our present with full awareness of our near past and future as a slice of time in history. In other words, the 200-year present consists of the oldest living person and the youngest person we know personally. Together, we make up our historical present. This might explain an eerie yet amazing thing, which is our collective memory. While I live three generations since WWII, I still carry with me memories and even unpleasant personal feelings about it. I grew up playing with remnants of WWII. The old Japanese denkibu behind our house was my playground. Sometimes my friends and I would ride our homemade tin canoes to a nearby rock island and play “Indiana Jones” with an old fighter jet that was submerged in the water. My child self was oblivious to the reality of being human. It never occurred to me that another human being, a soldier, died in that plane. Now I can’t help but wonder… did he die alone? Was there another soldier with him? Was he about my age? Was he in love with a girl? What did he write in his last letter? Did he tell her to wait for him? These thoughts pain me as they run through my head. I was there… I played in his deathbed… his remains may have been trapped in the plane for all I know…how sad.
War is sad. War is painful. Whether you’ve fought in a theater of war, covered news in a conflict zone, whether you’re a mother who gave birth while your other half was at war, or a mother waiting anxiously for news of her son or daughter, or even worse, soldiers who paid the ultimate price or even veterans who continue to live with that price each day… it’s sad and painful. On the other side of this, there’s also another story; one that is rarely told. The story of the civilian veterans of war or as we like to call them, the “collateral damage of war.” These are the stories of women, children, and the elderly who weather the violence and dangers of war… the story of our people. One of my favorite story as a child is that of one of my dad’s uncle. He famously (or at least in our village of Ngerkesoaol) risked his life one night by ignoring the Japanese soldiers and swam a great distance to an American ship and asked them for food in order to feed his starving family. You see, he wasn’t a hero, he was just desperate. In those days, our people hid and lived in constant fear while one of the greatest war the world has seen went on in our backyard.
What was our “price”? We always commemorate veterans of WWII but rarely or even never commemorate our own loss. The lives lost, the severed dignity of our fathers, and the broken lives of our survivors. Have we forgotten? Does it not matter? I think, as a society, we haven’t grieved and reflected on our price. Today, we often find ourselves begging for foreign aid from these rich countries. Our people, cobbled up with the rest of Micronesians, are now the new target of discrimination in Hawaii. And yet, we never stop to reflect our role in the collective human narrative; where we once carried the burden of humanity on our shoulders. It’s a pretty big deal if you ask me.
Image from Bravo Artillery dot org.