Posted by: justawriter | September 16, 2009

Far Afield – Mourn the dead, but don’t forget the living

Friday saw the eighth anniversary of one of the defining tragedies of recent years. It was marked by remembrances for the dead and admiration for the selfless heroism of the first responders who died that day.
But there were more troubling commemorations that day and the following Saturday. There were those who sought to use the memory of that horrific day to regain the political dominance they gained in the wake of the disaster.
Exploiting events for political gain isn’t my biggest concern, because it’s all part of the rough and tumble of politics. Generally, the public is well able to decide whether a politician is using tragedy to force needed change in the system or callously exploiting fear and hatred for votes. It even has a name in U.S. history. It’s called “waving the bloody shirt,” and was used by both parties after the Civil War to exhort veterans to “vote the way they shot.”
What worries me about the recent commemorations is the seeming need to make Sept. 11 an object of permanent celebration. As a country, we have never been a place where defeat and injury were honored in such a way.
In the years after World War II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor was little noted on Dec. 7 except for small, dignified ceremonies at the USS Arizona in Hawaii where it was the men who died that were remembered, not the events that led to their demise. After that attack, America rolled up its sleeves, went to work producing ships and planes and ammunition and sent her sons off to save the world. A world free of Nazi and Japanese military domination is a far greater memorial to the men of the Arizona than any structure human hands could build.
There are countries around the world whose national celebrations, indeed their entire ethnic identities, are wrapped around great defeats and disasters. They are usually small, weak countries that are only notable for being pawns in the diplomatic games of the great powers.
The America of old celebrates what it has achieved, not what it suffered. July Fourth is the day we spit in the eye of the biggest empire in the world. Nov. 11 is when we forced an end to the “war to end all wars.” I think it is one of America’s greatest strengths that we focus on our accomplishments rather than our setbacks.
That’s why I was glad to see President Obama declare Patriot Day, the name that has been given to Sept. 11, a day of national service to the country. It transforms a day remembered in fear and hatred into an expression of that most American emotion, hope. Hope that we can build a better, stronger, more peaceful nation and world as a memorial worthy of those who died that day and all those who were killed in the wars that followed.
Which brings me to the second reason I worry about the emotional and political commitment given to the Sept. 11 commemorations. The countries that get so wrapped up in their defeats seem to get trapped in the past. Leaders of those countries try to mute criticism by whipping the people into hatred of long-dead enemies. They blame poor conditions on conspiracies and plots engineered by “others” rather than their own incompetence. If all your problems are caused by the Venezuelans or the French or whoever is the enemy of the month, you can’t blame the people in power for that, can you?
The focus on the dead and outside enemies blinds us at times to the crying needs of our own people. As a famous organizer once said, we need to “mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.” We can’t let fear and hatred and a desire for vengeance blind us to the work that needs to be done to help those who survived or were left behind.
People in Beulah who have cable television may have noticed a public service announcement for an organization called Courage Carries On. It is a project of the American Legion that encourages veterans to seek help if they are having trouble adjusting to civilian life after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the commercial, individuals talk about the kind of problems their loved ones are facing and how they need to have the courage to seek help. My nephew, who almost died in Afghanistan, and his wife are two of the people in the commercial.
The level of psychological problems suffered by returning veterans is troubling, as are the symptoms of substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide. These men and women volunteered to give up their lives for this country if necessary but they come back to a society that has been insulated from the horror and destruction they witnessed. Programs like Courage Carries On lets them know that there are people out there who understand what they went through and can help them cope.
People like me who have never been in war can never truly understand how deeply and profoundly it affects our soldiers, sailors and marines. But we can fight like hell to make sure when they return they have all the tools they need to successfully return to civilian life and take full advantage of the liberties they fought to protect.
That, in the end, will be a fitting memorial.
For more information on Courage Carries On, go to http://couragecarrieson.org.

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