Veterans Day. It’s one of “those” holidays. Those random days scattered throughout the year that seem nothing but good excuses for stores to offer sales. Mattresses at Memorial Day. Lunchboxes at Labor Day. The only reason I remember Columbus Day is that it’s the only weekday in October that I don’t get any mail. Hallmark hasn’t yet figured out how to capitalize on these holidays. You can’t really wish anyone a “happy” Labor Day. So each November, I glance through the list of office closures in the local paper and think, “Ah. Another day the kids have off school.”
It’s not that I don’t think the day is important or that I don’t want to honor soldiers. It’s that the day seems to have little bearing on my life.
But this year, my daughter asked me if I would come to hear the Veterans Day concert at her school. Her elementary school had Veterans Day ceremonies in previous years, but it was this, her first year in middle school, that the ceremony took on direct importance for her. She’s in the choir now, and the choir was one of the groups performing for the ceremony.
When she first mentioned it, I tucked the idea of attending in the back of my brain. Most days, I’m lucky to be able to lay a plan in the morning that actually plays out by evening. I routinely adjust my plan as the day progresses. As the principal manager of our household, I never know when the furnace might go out, a child might get sick, or the neighbor might pick another fight with our dog. Tucked away in my brain, the thought of the event got crowded out by many other things, not the least of which is my need to hunt down an hour of solitude whenever I can.
But on Monday night, my daughter mentioned the event again, and so I went through the pretense of writing it on my calendar for Tuesday morning, only to find that she had already written it there. It seemed to mean a lot to her.
So off I went next morning after dropping my son at his bus stop. I hadn’t had time to shower and hoped I could sneak in, be seen by the daughter, and sneak out again to run the morning’s errands and make it home for a shower before lunch and laundry.
Hurrying into the school, I glanced around the parking lot and recognized a friend coming along the sidewalk. She was wearing a dark suit, hat, and heels, which I slowly realized was her military uniform. She’s a nurse in the naval reserves and was coming to the school, where her son is also in 6th grade, to be honored during the ceremony.
We entered the school, chatting about the gathering. She told me that her son was embarrassed that she was coming in her dress blues, but she told him that, if she were going to come, it would be in uniform. After her appearance at the middle school, she was heading to the elementary school, where her second son was also attending a Veterans Day ceremony.
“Man,” I thought. “Veterans sure are in demand today!”
I walked with my friend into the gym. She went to find a spot near her son’s class and I took a seat next to another mom I knew. The choir was warming up, the student orchestra and band were arrayed in their chairs, but there were few other adults present, and I wondered why this ceremony was so special that my daughter wanted me there.
Then the rest of the students bustled in, filling the bleachers with their noise and commotion. The racket died down when the principal stood to begin the program. He announced the purpose of the gathering and introduced the band director, who organizes the ceremony each year. While these two men spoke to the audience, I glanced around the gym, noticing a few other adults in military uniform. The one closest to me was a woman in fatigues and combat boots.
The program began with six students reading poems. All girls. Each one read unintelligible phrases about love, an end to war, and other clichés. Oh, God, I thought. Please let this program be short.
Then the band director announced the Marine Corps color guard from the large Army base nearby. I perked up as five soldiers in service dress marched into the gym from the hallway. The room was silent save for the clicking of their polished patent leather shoes on the gym floor, and the gentle jingle of the medals on the director’s jacket. I studied their stiff frames and impassive faces under low-set white hats, looking for any expression that would clue me in to what they were thinking. There were none.
The first soldier carried a wooden rifle, the second, a long pole from which fluttered colorful ribbons embossed with the names of dozens of units. Next came the soldier carrying the American flag, and another shouldering another rifle. The director marched quietly alongside, reciting the orders in a low voice. Lockstep, they reached the center of the group, where they turned toward the audience and stood at attention. Then the band director told us all to rise, and we sang the national anthem as the band and orchestra played. After the singing, the soldiers placed the banners and flag in their stand and marched to the side of the gym, where they stood at ease through the rest of the program.
The band director then presented the orchestra’s tune, and introduced the servicemen and women in the audience, having each of them stand for applause. He showed a video about the history of Veterans Day – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — and directed the band in a medley of military service songs, one for each branch of the service. Anchors Aweigh, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and so on, even including the song for the Coast Guard on his own battered but clear trumpet. The choir ended the program with another patriotic song, and the color guard returned to retrieve the flag, marching as before, clicking shoes, jingling medals, in front of a silent audience. Before they removed the flag, the band director pulled out his bugle. He explained what the instrument was and its importance in military routines. Then he played Taps, and the soldiers removed the flag and carried it out of the gym, ending the ceremony.
OK, half an hour, I realized. Not bad. A better ceremony than I was expecting, seeing as how patriotism often turns into maudlin sentimentality. I learned a thing or two about music, history, and the reason for the day. But as I left the gym that morning, I got to thinking. What did any of this have to do with me?
During these days of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we constantly hear the drumbeat, and it says these brave men and women put their lives at risk to protect your freedom. Your freedom. And I began to ponder whether that was really true. Have the many soldiers in our many wars really been protecting MY freedom? How can that be?
I barely even know anyone who’s a soldier. The closest I come is my nurse friend in the naval reserves and a student in one of my classes who’s in the ROTC.
For that matter, I don’t even know many veterans. One grandfather served in World War I, but he died when I was young and I barely remember him. My dad enlisted in the Navy in 1942, when he was only 17. He told me that he enlisted so he could control what happened to him. If he’d waited to be drafted, he’d have had no control over his destiny. He spent most of the war years in officer training, and by the time he was commissioned on a vessel to the South Pacific, the war came to an end. Although he was never in battle, he claims his place in Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.”
My two brothers were of the age to serve in Vietnam, but had draft numbers so high they never got called up. We never talked about that war in my small Midwestern town, though it was on the news and in the headlines constantly when I was in high school. In my protected environment, the most I knew of Vietnam was the POW bracelet that my best friend wore as a fashion statement.
So how could it be that more than 6,000 American soldiers have been killed in our current wars, but I don’t know anyone serving? How is it that politicians and the military can say they’re protecting my freedom? Isn’t that the reason we’re given for any fighting? Protecting our freedom. Making the world “safe for democracy.”
I suppose that, had Hitler triumphed in World War II, our democracy might indeed have been threatened. Maybe that’s part of the reason that war is referred to as The Good War. Despite our best efforts, though, Korea was divided and South Vietnam fell, but neither of those outcomes seems to have hurt our democracy, or my freedom. If you confuse democracy with capitalism, you could say that the Iraq War might have been necessary, but I can’t quite justify that interpretation. Some wars really do seem futile.
And yet, war is continuous. Counting insurgencies and civil wars, there are currently 30 to 40 wars raging around the world. Year after year, decade after century, they go on. In some cases, like World War II, the cause seems clear and the bad guys are obvious. In many others, the point of war seems simply to be the fighting. Over territory. Over power. Over the right to dominate.
In his book The Wonder of Boys, Michael Gurian, a researcher of the development of girls and boys, says that, historically, “war and soldiering was a very dramatic way to hook adventure up with mission – individual effort with collective good. It was the way to say to a boy, ‘Your life gains ultimate meaning by its sacrifice’” (Gurian, page 32). War does seem primarily to be a “guy thing,” but not exclusively. Catherine the Great took on the Ottoman Empire, and women are routinely conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Of the American soldiers killed in Iraq, more than 100 are female and two of the people honored at the Veterans Day ceremony were women.
So, then, what am I — someone as close to war as is the Earth to the sun — to make of Veterans Day? In my head, I understand the desire and need to honor our soldiers and the work they do. Some of it is truly noble. This day, though, was baffling, and it was in trying to find the meaning behind it that I recalled another baffling day a decade ago.
In the summer of 1998, I flew with my husband, a native of Japan, from our home in Minnesota to Honolulu so he could attend a professional meeting. We took with us our daughter, who was then only 18 months old. It was our first visit to Hawaii, and we wanted to see some of the most famous sights – Waikiki, Diamond Head, and of course, Pearl Harbor. Our daughter had been born on Dec. 7 — Pearl Harbor Day — which is also my father’s birthday.
Shortly after we got to the Harbor, my husband felt ill and went to lie down in the first aid station. So I took my daughter in her stroller to the Arizona memorial, and then we wound our way through the cramped, shadowy spaces inside the naval museum, looking at the many cases displaying missiles, bombs, and other weaponry. Historic, yes, but not very interesting for a small child.
Hawaii is a favorite vacation spot for Japanese tourists, who come to America because the goods are cheap, and the museum was crowded that day with dozens of Japanese, moving and chattering in groups, pointing and snapping photos. My daughter and I seemed to be the only Westerners there.
As I rounded a corner along one of the dim passageways, I noticed a photo high up on the wall, a framed black-and-white portrait of a Japanese military officer in full uniform. I peered up at the sign posted below the photo, which identified the man as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. I’d heard the name many times. This, of course, was the architect of the famous attack.
Yamamoto is an extremely common name in Japan. When Americans would ask my husband if he were related to the Admiral, he would tease them and say, “Yeah, he’s my uncle!” But I’d never seen the man’s face before. So I stood awhile looking up at the photo, pondering how this man and I could end up having the same surname. With my light hair and blue eyes, no one would ever mistake me for a Japanese, that’s for sure. I wondered if the Admiral would be as amused as I was.
Suddenly, I became aware of a high-pitched woman’s voice shouting near me and looked down to see a middle-aged Japanese woman bending over my daughter in her stroller, smiling at her and shouting “kawaii! kawaii!” (“cute! cute!”). Then she looked up at me, saying something I couldn’t understand, smiling and nodding. My Japanese was lousy then (still is), but I knew the word “kawaii” and understood her to be admiring my beautiful and, from her viewpoint, very American daughter.
At that moment, I was struck dumb, and not just for the lack of a common language. There I stood in a landmark in my own country, yet in a room over-run with the descendants of the very people whose actions had made this place so necessary. There I stood, beneath the photo of the Admiral, bearing the same name as the man whose actions gave birth to this place on a day my daughter would later claim as her own birthday. I had no words to tell the woman the significance of our brief moment together. I had no way to tell her that I, too, was a Yamamoto, and that my daughter also had the blood of Japan in her veins.
The woman chattered loudly at me for a few more minutes, gesturing toward my daughter and smiling. I nodded and smiled. It was all I could do.
The meaning of that moment is – still – more powerful than I can fathom, even a dozen years later. It is because of that particular war, and the veterans who fought it, that I was able to stand there that day with my daughter, trying to understand the heart of the Japanese woman in the museum. Perhaps this is the moment I should thank the veterans for.