Two of my cousin’s daughters have enlisted in the U.S. military and are now in their first month of boot camp. I’m trying to write a note to them, and have the usual dilemma of what to say to people I don’t know well, but very much want to hold in my heart, in hope, and in prayer.
In the meantime, it’s Veterans Day. I placed our American flag in its bracket yesterday out of gratitude and honor for those who advocate for and fight for justice and freedom. I am proud of them, and cherish our country and what the United States represents in so many good ways. I also deeply lament and grieve to my core that so many people have died, and so many soldiers are injured or damaged because we cannot find other ways to come to justice and freedom, much less peace.
A few weeks ago, a Dutch friend took us to the Netherlands American cemetery in Margraten (in the south of the Netherlands; https://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/netherlands-american-cemetery#.W-g2jBNKiLI). Our friend Tom knew well of this cemetery as he lives nearby; he also knows some of our family’s ties to the US military and The Netherlands. We walked around the cemetery, seeing thousands of crosses marking the graves of so very many people. We took pictures, and read the maps, and paused. We read names of soldiers, and considered the landscape and the throngs of soldiers who had crossed through these hills. I thought about what little I know of what they endured, having heard some stories from older relatives, and having meaningful visits to some museums, and reading about the experiences of soldiers and their families. Seeing those many, many crosses made me consider not only the number of people who died, but the impact on so many more families, friends, fiancés.
The death of one of these people affected whole communities.
This is a cemetery of over 8,000 graves.
This is one cemetery.
I wonder about the ideals that call someone to offer everything they have in order to respond to a leader’s commands. Well, not that each of the ones in military service had a choice. The dynamic of mandatory enlistment may be an additional factor in our honor and respect. Even though this wasn’t their choice, one still “soldiers on” in obedience and service. The orders come through the ranks; not much opportunity for discussion or debate, or resistance.
Which brings me back to the ideals for which one serves, and the ideals that summon our honor, respect, perhaps even reverence. Obedience by itself is a mixed bag to me, which is an indication that it is a very good thing that I have not served in the military—both for the sake of the military, and for my own sake. I am wary of pure obedience. I’m also wary of unanimous votes, by the way. The ideals of freedom and justice call us to great obedience and sacrifice, but also create the very opportunities to dissent, disagree and resist.
That very dilemma of fighting for freedom out of obedience to one’s superior officer’s orders so that others may be free to engage in dissent may be the compulsion for our honoring this day, knowing that obedience sometimes leads to great sacrifice. It is not simply dissent, or disagreement, that leads to wars. It is complicated history and layers of relationship and so much more that military conflict seeks to overcome.
My friends and family who have been (or are) in the military may very well wish to make a verbal show of force to help me understand so much better why they serve, as I am a privileged observer. I do admire you, cousins, sister, father, niece, brother, friends. This is a day to hold you in special esteem, and dear to my heart. Thank you for serving. And I hope and pray for the day we don’t go to war anymore. May we not learn war anymore, but rather learn from wars past what makes best for peace. That’s my ideal.
I still need to write those notes. I think these cousins know very well the nature of the dilemmas they face. Perhaps the primary message might be something like this: may peace be always with you, with love, and in the embrace of God’s grace.