by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
May 26, 2008
PAUL, RICHARD AND PHIL
BRADENTON, Fla., May 26, 2008 -- It is not hard, even after 43 years, to summon their images to mind this morning. Paul was swift afoot, blessed with a loving heart and a truly warm smile, and my dearest cousin. Richard had a deep integrity that came from his very core, and among the guys of our senior class at Monroe-Woodbury, he was the most ordinary and yet, for his simple, heartfelt honesty, the most special. And the splash of colors and form that lit up every canvas he ever painted was Phil's unique gift.
Paul Roberts, Richard Marsh and Phil Ruminski were three of the friends of that time who didn't return from Vietnam; there were others who did return, like Bobby O'Shea, John Kwiatkowsi, Jimmy Palmer and Lole Peko, but returned no longer as the teenagers I knew, but young, stronger and sometimes haunted - but god, very good - men.
In the fifth year of a new war that in its very foundation of untruths and error seems tragically like the Vietnam War in which Paul, Richard and Phil lost their lives, I cannot summon the image of anyone of my generation who has died in the streets and deserts of Iraq. My nephew, Lt. Col. Michael Kies of the U.S. Marine Corps, fought in both Desert Storm and the War in Iraq, and mercifully has come home to lead a civilian life even as he remains in the Marine Corps Reserve. I am proud that he represents another generation of my family that fought for our country.
And while I can take pride in the courage of my high school friends and my nephew, being proud of what this nation is doing in Iraq is a more difficult and nuanced thing. As the revelations have paraded across the front page over the past five years and the body count grew, I lost all trust in the men and women in Washington who took us into this war in a headlong rush, little knowing, and possibly little caring, about the immense obstacles that lay in their path. We are at war with an idea, after all, and beyond all kinds of bombs and all kinds of weapons, that is the most powerful force on Earth; indeed, it is unstoppable, except by the power of another, more powerful idea.
The idea of America in this war is ostensibly this: that people have a right to live in peace, to select their leaders in a democratic process, and to pursue their dreams, their faith and their future as they choose. And that is not only the American Dream, but the dream of all oppressed and forgotten people who can see past the prison walls of propaganda into the wide open spaces of real freedom.
But how can that idea be pursued against a countervailing idea, which is that all are subservient in a rigid hierarchy to the interpreted will of a God who calls for war against the very lives He created, and who wills the subservience of women to men, the stoning and death of sinners, and rewards assassins with a heaven that seems to the West a sad parody of an ancient and wrongheaded myth, when those strategies that inform our own idea are compromised by error, at least, and deliberate lies, at worst? How can an idea God himself would instantly reject be defeated by a skein of errors and lies that do not truly represent the American Dream, but the fantasy of glory and historic vindication our government has pursued?
Perhaps most would not characterize the battle in today's world in this way. Some might ask us to look at the larger picture that would include the survival of our one trusted Mideast ally, Israel, and the triumph of Western materialism in its quest for the oil that fuels its frenzies. Yet that is not a picture that inspires the American people, and its truthfulness is suspect. Israel is powerful in ways that most Arab nations are not, and there is oil enough from the seas of Africa to the steppes of Kazakhstan to the 30 million unexplored federal lands the oil companies have yet to explore - outside of Alaska - to fuel our endless fads.
Yet there is a real idea that was somehow encapsulated in the very DNA of men like Paul, Richard and Phil, of Bobby, Jimmy, John and Lole, and my nephew Michael, one that is larger than anything anyone said or did to lead them to war. I believe it was composed of at least two things.
The first was their love for a country that has blessed us all with affluence and prosperity, even when we see poverty around us here at home. Americans know that even in the worst of times, our freedoms and our Constitution have created a nation in which by chance or by design anyone can flourish, and where no one until this time had reason to fear the government. They know that cities of India, Burma, and China, the unheard-of villages of Laos, Papua New Guinea, the islands of Indonesia, the vast deserts of Africa, the jungles of the Amazon and many other places conceal a poverty almost too terrible to imagine, where people and especially children die in great number of preventable diseases, and amid ample but undistributed sustenance, of starvation and thirst. We do know what we have here, even if we do not always remember the enormous sacrifice of so many good Americans to keep it ours and free. They did so because they loved and cherished it as a great miracle of God and history.
The other idea that was engrained in them and prompted their sacrifice was the idea of freedom. It has been offered to use by our grandfathers and great-grandfathers as the product of their own work and sacrifice. Never has a living generation of Americans enjoyed freedom in such abundance, and so protected, as we do. Our system of law, our courts, our local, county, state and federal governments, created by those who went before us, have very slowly and painfully crafted a cradle of freedom in which our new lives can be led in a relative innocence no epoch of history can rival. Our freedom is our spiritual wealth, and it is the driver of all our dreams.
Yet, we have witnessed in the past five years, in the name of national security, a slow and terrible erosion of basic rights that I expect the next Administration, whether of John McCain, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, will begin to repair. In their speeches at graveyards around the country and abroad today, I doubt the elected officials who gave us those laws that diminish our freedom will not contrast that fact to the unsung sacrifice of people like Paul, Richard and Phil - and 50,000 others in Vietnam, and 4,000 more in Iraq, and countless more in a dozen wars since we achieved independence.
That is what is missing from the American Dream today: the love and swift grace of Paul, the integrity of Richard, and the imagination of Phil. If they could today distill the essence of their lives, Paul would tell Americans to reach into their hearts, find a deeper love for one another, an a deeper desire to protect our communities and homes. Richard would tell us to seize this hour when corruption has become so evident in Washington to remake the rosters of public service; he would not countenance the replacement of a Governor of New York who used highly-paid prostitutes with one who who admitted affairs and drug use and more. He would not countenance the presence in public office of a U.S. Senator and Congressman who begged for sex in public bathrooms. He would not condemn men and women who stole the entire $21 billion surplus of California with their energy-shifting three-card monte; he would condemn the men and women who have raided the public airwaves to build more and more control over what the public learns, hears, reads and listens to; he would condemn the rapacious Wall Street investment bankers, venture capitalists and credit and insurance moguls who have foreclosed prosperity to the next generation, and perhaps generations after them. And Phil would tell us to open our minds, our souls and our lives to change and experience, to see the colors and lights and magical sounds of the world, to appreciate the beauty God has has given us, and to care for it, and to recreate it for our children. Together, I think, they would weep for us, and for what we have become.
That is the reason we have a Memorial Day. So that we can remember not just that they sacrificed their lives for America, but why - for what faith, for what dream, for what belief and spirit? And in contemplating not just their loss but their experience and their understanding, we might today hear new words that tell us truth, that move us swiftly forward, that urge us to the core of the world, which is the beauty of God. For all of America today, as we contemplate the tiny flags and endless long rows of gravestones, the parades and the solemnity, they would wish a renewal, a new beginning, a peaceful start to real, enduring change. God bless them, and God bless us, and God bless the America for which they died.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter, the first Internet daily newspaper.