For 22 years I assembled at my workplace before 0630 and again before 1700. Many brave men and women in those units, and I, rendered honors to a symbol of our national experiment (the one that’s still trying to find out if a set of ideals and rule of law rather than religion and skin color can unite us as a country).
We had each, for our own reasons, signed on to protect our nation’s borders, to defend the constitution, and to give the last measure of our life if it were required. Our occupation was (and is) filled with symbolism. And it was often in that moment of silence before the bugle played Reveille or Retreat that I thought about the symbols. Watching the flag raised and lowered reminded me there were ideals worth defending that were greater than my self interest.
Being united rather than divided in our particular profession enabled successes that didn’t seem possible and brought many of us back alive from challenging situations.
I’m reminded now that not everyone needs this cloth to serve such an ideal. First responders run into danger daily with less symbolism. Seeing a fellow citizen, or family member, in peril brings many to that conclusion. And protecting those we care about many would agree is an ideal worth fighting over.
Sometimes though we appear to be blind to the idea that a stranger may have a family whose safety, whose right to live, is also worth fighting for. Focusing on abstraction sometimes takes that attention from where it needs to be.
If you read war poetry (or war fiction, or war essays) you rarely find abstraction. The words ‘freedom’ or ‘commies’ doesn’t appear unless it’s in a quote by a politician.
A conversation with a bunkmate, the cool skin of a dead body, the smell of shit, the sound of artillery, and blood. Those appear. There’s the taste of mom’s fried chicken, the scent of a girl’s perfume. Those also appear. The things we find ourselves fighting for. And sometimes we find ourselves thinking about them while holding our hands canted, arms parallel with the ground and fingertips touching the edge of our eyebrows, rendering honors to a cause greater than our politics and ourselves.
Protesters are doing the same thing when they place their bodies in harm’s way for the idea that their children should be able to live without fear of being shot for the color of their skin.
There’s a poem in the book Phantom Noise titled ‘Illumination Rounds.’ In the poem, Brian Turner’s speaker finds himself in his back yard digging in the middle of the night. He’s seeing the war dead and trying to convey this to his wife who hasn’t seen what he’s seen. However it is the wife, on faith, who understands that what he is seeing is real and that abstraction and stock answers do not help. In fact it is the abstraction, the separation from those in harm’s way that perhaps created the war dead. She says:
‘We should invite them into our home.
We should learn their names, their history.
We should know these people
We bury in the earth.’
This is the beginning of a refusal to accept the idea of collateral damage, and an acknowledgement of what happens when we see the abstraction instead of the people affected whether it’s in our own country or overseas. You often don’t get that from news stories or history books.