by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
May 27, 2002
Our American Dead
Now they lay beneath brown earth, young friends and men every canon and creed will honor, and every cannon of war has killed. That is to say that the creed of war that killed my cousin Paul and my friends Richard and Philip is the same everywhere: It is a belief in cannons that kill young men, as old as mankind.
Today the thirst for revenge rose high in me as I read in the New York Times a powerful story of the last minutes of men and women waiting to die on the upper floors of the World Trade Center towers. I thought of a million Muslims prostrate at the center of Mecca, and a nuclear blast that that left each and every one of them dust, borne on an evil wind.
At the center of my religious faith, however, is forgiveness, the credo "Turn the other cheek." That is not a problem for the people of Israel, who believe in the Old Testament dogma, "An eye for an eye." It is not a problem for Muslims who believe in slaying enemies of Islam, either. Neither is it anathema to the Hindus, who believe that life is so ephemeral, anyway, and reincarnation such a certainty, that one life has little meaning or value beyond what it can produce from day to day. The belief of Buddhists, many of whom renounce war; is also that life will return agan and again until it is perfected. I believe in karma, the extertion of a counterforce equivalent to the force exerted in the opposite direction, morally, politically, spirtually -- any way you like. And I believe also in the word of God that says, "Vengeance is mine."
So after I contemplated a fitting revenge, I went to Mass and recalled the evil of it. There I prayed to be able to say something cogent about the life and death of three young men who believed in America with open hearts, and before they would filed with children and wives and memories and song, as mine has been, they died in a place called Vietnam.
I knew Paul the best of these young men, and no two words fit him as well as "quick" and "gentle." He had a quick mind and a gentle heart and was good to the core; I can't imagine how they turned him into a tough Marine. Philip was quiet, a highly talented artist - a professional, really, even in high school, where his paintings sold well - and had a beautiful sister whose grief I have never been able to imagine. Richard was honest, a kid from the country with an easy smile and a good arm and good strong legs that carried him past our football rivals, and was courageous in his honesty, not sparing his friends the force of it. I wonder what he would have said, were he alive still, about the revelation that the Pentagon lied about the supposed naval encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin that became our pretext to enter the war.
Do you remember how fights got started in elementary school? Remember how someone not in the battle would tell a lie or repeat a statement that sparked the anger of one kid, and that lie would become a truth all the kids whispered until the wave of it reached the other kid, who struck back with a fist at the other's nose? I always think of the instigator as a bigger kid than most of us, better insulated against wayward fists by his size, slightly grayed out in the background of things; was that what we did in Vietnam, what decision-makers at the Pentagon did, sending gentle Paul and brilliant Phil and good buddy Richard to die in a fight based on a lie? Since it appears they did, the problem becomes, how can we honor the dead that believed a lie? Because I do mean to honor them, regardless of what it was that drove them down to the brown earth before their lives were lived.
It's not the custom to remember official lies on Memorial Day, but to recall the courage and sacrifice of those who died in their service. We who remember must separate their lives from the general miasma that surrounds the tale of Vietnam, and bear our flowers to their crosses and plaques without questioning the purpose of their deaths. But perhaps when we come home, when the memories of the young dead are put away and the burgers are popping on the barbecue, we might give voice to some of the doubts we ought to have about any present or future war and those who want the young to fight it. Thus we might be subtly responsible for saving someone, even ten generations from now, who is being prepared for slaughter in some faraway place. That would be a just revenge.
Even so, I don't have much doubt that the fire of Islamic fundamentalism will burn the world again, or that someone else's fire will burn it back. Israel and Palestine could settle their differences and live a hundred years in peace before their hatreds will even begin to ebb. You cannot fight a religion or an idea except as Christ fought, with innocence. And inocence leads to slaughter, too, of the innocents. You have to wait until someone gets tired of blood, or has some other pressing engagement, or controls everyone and everything, or dies.
Now another cousin, Michael, is a Marine. He has to listen to the words that drive us to war and sort through them for himself, which he is perfectly capable of doing.
I don't believe a lie has led us into Afghanistan, but the tale of what some knew and when they knew it is growing stranger by the day. But the millions kneeling in Mecca have nothing to fear from me.