It’s Memorial Day weekend, and that means my annual brief essay remembering Harland Miller. Mr. Miller was a WWII vet severely wounded in North Africa. He spent years in the hospital and returned home to live in poverty the rest of his life, unable to hold any but the most undemanding jobs. Having lived in poverty, he died in poverty, but not unloved. With no other family, the church became as much of one as it was able, and Mr Miller has not been forgotten. We honored him, and we honored his service in the name of the country. If you want to know more about him you can look up previous essays.
For some, Mr. Miller symbolized the degrading futility of war. It’s not that our congregation was without veterans of every war from WWII to now. They were there in the pews; some still are. Some were true heroes, but never talked about it. Some weren’t. Most took pride in their service, but those who engaged in combat were never proud of what they witnessed, and I often wondered if they were bothered by noncombatants who spoke so boldly and bravely about battles they were never in.
I’m not sure why we glamorize war. It seldom achieves long lasting purposes of value. In the process it kills and wounds combatants and civilians alike while draining treasuries of funds that could have been invested in constructive ways. To be sure, in our pews sat heroes whose courage in the face of overwhelming odds inspired whole generations. But heroic action is not a validation of war. Sometimes, rarely, there are good and sufficient reasons to go to war. But for the most part, war is a gigantic chess game played with human lives, lives that are expendable, and who cares as long as they are the enemy! With few exceptions, it’s a game played under the direction of political egos for purposes that history ultimately dismisses as senselessly immoral. It’s popular to say that our young men and women have not died, or been wounded, in vain, but mostly they have. It’s popular to say that they are out there defending our freedom, and it’s passionately believed by many to be true. They have to. It would be too cruel to believe anything else, but it’s not true. Some wars, and some battles, have been fought to defend our shores and freedoms, but most have had little to do with either.
Can we stop it? I doubt it. War has been glamorized throughout history as the ultimate test and display of human courage and virtue. To fight, kill, and bravely die for no good reason seems to be a human pastime hard wired into our psyches. And there is nothing quite as intoxicating as big, fast, lethal killing machines we allow young men and women to play with.
If we can’t stop it, maybe we can deescalate it by lifting up the Harland Millers of our nation as the signs and symbols of what it costs. Mr. MIller is emblematic of those who return from war physically alive, emotionally shattered, celebrated in the abstract, but individually shelved as broken pots not strong enough to mend themselves and no longer useful to the rest of us. It’s a phenomenon that seems to have gained momentum with Viet Nam and the Middle East conflicts. Maybe it’s because the nation has never been united behind them as morally or politically acceptable. In a house divided, those who have returned are warmly received as long as they can smoothly re-integrate without making waves. When they can’t, they’re treated as damaged goods who may not have been all that sound in the first place. What if we were more honest about what we, as a nation, have done to them, confessing that we don’t really give a damn.
“Wait!”, you say, “That’s not true! How dare you!” Take a look in the public mirror. There’s a stingy reluctance to put too many resources toward their care and “rehabilitation.” Nothing symbolizes that more than the ongoing scandals in the VA, which, in turn, can be laid at the feet of Congress, and the current anti-tax, anti-government attitude of large segments of the voting public.
Mr. Miller was a victim of the Good War, one that had to be fought. I will go to the cemetery tomorrow to place a flag near Harland’s grave, and maybe a couple of flowers. I cannot thank him for his service. I can only apologize.