In our little village, Saturday mornings are abuzz with activity. This morning I relished getting outside on a sunny, relatively warm November day. Not all the leaves are gone, and the colors of this day are still alive with brilliant orange and gold. A lazy wind blows the leaves across the road.
I completed my usual tasks -- butcher shop, dry cleaning, post office, vet for cat food, car fill-up.
I take for granted that I am able drive into my little town, enjoying a wonderful life free from want, free from fear, and having freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. President Franklin Roosevelt, urged by his wife my heroine Eleanor, originated the concept of the "four freedoms" in the 1930s. In a famous speech, Roosevelt expressed the wish that everyone in the world be able to enjoy, as Americans do, these four freedoms.
As I rounded the curve to the oldest part of our village, I came upon a scene that made me stop in my tracks, and weep.
Our village has a special little garden with a flag and war monuments. On this island of ground stood about 50 people, another 20 sat in chairs in front of them. The 20 people in chairs were mostly elderly, old soldiers or their widows. On the opposite side stood soldiers from every recent war, standing solemnly in uniform.
Next week is Veterans Day, that special day set aside to honor those who served our country. The Roman poet Horace wrote, "Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori," it is fitting and proper to die for one's country.
I weep for gratitude for those who have served. The price of our freedom is high -- all of us probably have at least one family member or friend who served his or her country with honor. They paid the price -- some the ultimate price -- for our freedom.
In my immediate family, there are no soldiers. I have to go back to the Civil War, on my father's side to find a direct ancestor who served. My maternal grandfather was called up for The War to End All Wars in November 1918, a few months after his eighteenth birthday. The Armistice was signed a few days later and he did not serve. My father, like Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, was 4-F because of a disability. Most of his friends served in Korea.
I have no direct connection to anyone who served. But I respect the price of service. I have a son and eight nephews, so I may someday have a direct connection.
I don't think anyone can fully know the price of war, until he or she has been directly affected.
The cost of war, however, is visible to all. When I was a child, one of our high school basketball stars came home from Vietnam minus both legs. Three others from our small town died in Vietnam.
My father taught at the small high school, with several hundred students in four grades. Four years ago I took my mother and dad to Washington, D.C.
My father requested we visit the Vietnam Memorial. Like hundreds of thousands of people before him, he found the names of these three young soldiers and ran his fingers along their names etched in the cold black marble. He cried as he remembered teaching these young men in biology or agriculture classes. He cried for what might have been. He cried for their families.
Today I cried for the soldiers serving in today's military. I cried for their families who have suffered from the recurring deployments, post-traumatic stress, financial hardships, suicide. I cried for the Gold Star parents whose beautiful son isn't coming home. I cried for the children whose mother or father isn't coming home. I cried for those injured in heart or body so much that they will never be the same.
Horace's ancient pronouncement is both true and false. The price of freedom is high. The cost of freedom is high.
This essay is not about the "whys" of war. That is for our elected leaders to decide. I will not debate whether wars are just. There will be wars, and rumors of wars, says the Good Book.
Below is a famous poem written by Wilfred Owen, a young poet who served in World War I. He mailed his poems to his mother. He was killed on another early November day in 1918, one week before the Armistice was signed.
I honor the soldiers and their families who paid the price for our freedom -- but I despise the cost. Quoth the raven.
Dulce et decorum est
- by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest3 began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.
Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets8 just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime9 . . .
Dim, through the misty panes10 and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,11 choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud12
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent14 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.