Monday, November 23, 2009

Normally I love cemeteries. When we travel I go out of my way to visit them and photograph the tombstones, the flowers, the landscape. I look at the dates and wonder if the long life was well lived or short life much grieved. I like being reminded that I’ll be along at some point, so I mustn’t waste a moment. I come away from cemeteries inspired.

The exception is war cemeteries. Once there I immediately feel depressed and hopeless. My throat gets tight and suddenly there is a hockey puck sitting in my stomach. I can’t take a deep breath.

We were in Washington D.C. over the weekend. Wes wanted to see all the war memorials and Arlington cemetery. I said okay, but no to the Vietnam Memorial because I’d been there before and couldn’t stop crying. And I insisted that we walk all the way from Dupont Circle (about 4 miles) because I knew that would be the only redeeming thing for me. I was right.

I cried the whole time: at the World War I memorial, the World War II memorial, the Korean War memorial, the Lincoln memorial, the rippling pond at Bobby Kennedy’s grave, the eternal flame at the Kennedy grave and especially at all the military graves in Arlington.

I kept thinking, “What a waste.” I know many would say, “But we are free because of these dead!” And first I thought no, there has to be a better way. You want X, I want X. If you are dead, then I can have X. That’s basically it, right? Isn’t there some way to deal with that?

I said to Wes, “The bottom line is that war is about young people dying because of arrogant, power hungry men.”

Sexism alert: if women ruled the world would it be different? What mother would want her precious children trained to take human life, to regard others as “the enemy” so as to make killing possible? What mother could send her children off with the potential not only for death, but to return broken or permanently damaged—not just their bodies, but their spirits?

But what about fighting against oppression? Are you supposed to let evil dictators rule? Should we still have slavery? Genocide? Hunger?

On the stone wall at Bobby Kennedy’s grave is a quote from him where he was quoting Aeshylus and it was something about “look within and tame our own savage beast.”

So perhaps I was wrong. Maybe the bottom line is that war is about dealing with the dark, selfish, I-perceive-myself-separate side of humanity. The side that says, “I am better than you. I should get what I want. I will kill you to get what I want.”

This is the side that is within each one of us. And if you don’t think you have a dark side, I invite to remember how you felt the last time someone cut in front of you in line or you didn’t get the vacation you requested or a teacher yelled at your kid and made her cry. Or they took away your aisle seat and put you in the middle—between two really large people.

I walked around Arlington thinking about the savage beast, the dark side within. I also thought about the Light within. I looked at those thousands of grave stones and wondered if these men and women had lived, what cure, what music, what art, what poetry, what invention, what idea did the world miss because they were killed before they could offer it?

I overheard a tour guide talking about “all the heroes buried here.” I know there are people buried in Arlington who went “above and beyond the call of duty.”

But I’ll tell you who my real hero is. My hero is the one who one who can see a better way. My hero is the one who prevents the war before it can begin. My hero is the one who can tame the savage beast within.