Memorial Day Post, for my Grandmother
Readers who followed my Facebook page following the end of my marriage may recall I was determined to learn the mandolin. High Strung in Durham rented me a beautiful mandolin, and I proceeded to admire it, trying to play a few chords. My daughters asked I do this on the porch, because the sounds I made were jangled, discordant – not at all like the Bill Monroe tapes my dad played on car trips. After taking one lesson from an impatient teacher, I tried to learn online. When I told my mom the reason I was not going to give up, she explained something to me. I had been determined to play the mandolin because my grandfather had played the mandolin at home with his four brothers. I had told myself a story that he had also played the mandolin after he returned from war. I had told myself a story that he played the mandolin to heal from the trauma of war. My mom, his daughter-in-law, explained to me that I had this wrong. My grandfather could not play the mandolin after he returned from war. Some wounds of trauma do not fully “heal” in the way that many people think about “healing.”
The false stories families tell themselves about war can be harmless, I suppose, but some lies are poison. In a documentary on the phenomenon that was “Pat Tillman,” his mother fights the U.S. Defense Department to uncover the truth about how her son was killed. Pat Tillman’s youngest brother Richard broke up the fake-story piety of a national, televised memorial service for Pat, naming that Pat himself was not Christian and would have been offended by the use of his death to mix together American patriotism and divine providence. (Richard’s words were more direct than that pretty sentence. Watch the documentary.) In a scene that must shape Memorial Day, Tillman’s mother tries to sort through why two of her sons had enlisted in the military after 9/11. The Wikipedia site about the documentary above names that the film “stars” Pat Tillman, but his mother, Mary Spalding, is the unrelenting truth-seeker in this story. She wonders, on film, whether the fact that she had framed photos of other men in her family in their military uniforms had shaped her sons’ imaginations to consider war imaginable. She wonders whether she had subtly made war a matter of heroism. While watching her words, what a viewer cannot escape is, even if this brave woman had not displayed the images of family warriors in her home, her sons might have still been swept up by the collective lie that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To tell your sons and daughters a different story, in the last fourteen years, has required an almost impossible thirst for truth combined with a willingness to endure the derision of other Christians.
My grandfather was drafted into World War II while my father and his sister were small children. My grandmother, Ethel Mae Elliston Hall, had watched her own father die slowly from the trauma of World War I. In my family, no one could reliably make either of the two great wars seem glorious. One of my uncles by marriage has tried to do that, for his own complicated, personal reasons. But no one else in the family can stand the effort. War had taken a father away from my grandmother. War had taken a husband away from my grandmother. My grandfather had returned from WW II, and he was a beloved and deeply respected member of his community and of his extended family. But there was no mistaking that he suffered the rest of his life from being shot up nearly to death in the “War in the Pacific” – itself an unbearably discordant set of words. During my first year teaching at Duke, I heard some younger divinity students say that World War II was justified because the U.S. had entered in order to end the Holocaust. I have taught about the lies of war in every class since. I have done this in part to honor the memory of my grandfather. I have done this in part to honor the truth that my grandmother lived her entire life.
One of the reasons that you will hear the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice” again and again and again each Memorial Day (not just from Fox News, but from MSNBC and maybe even Democracy Now) is that the words “ultimate” and “sacrifice” work on some part of the mainstream American psyche. I am still trying to sort out why those words are so salient. But I think it has something to do with what Susan Ketchin has called our “Christ-haunted landscape.” What Ketchin describes about the South applies in different ways across the United States. Something about the origin stories many mainstream Americans tell ourselves involves men making the “ultimate sacrifice,” perhaps to try to prove to ourselves that the ghost of Christianity is true, now, in a different way – the way of righteous warriors. What breaks my heart and pisses me off as a Christian is that the real, risen Jesus Christ is the hope for real confession, the hope that allows my friends and family to see the lies of war for what they are. By replacing Jesus Christ with veterans, we not only commit heresy, we also commit a heresy that takes away the very truth that makes it possible to look at the truth of human lies. If part of what fuels Memorial Day is the desperate hope that no one solider has died for “nothing,” then perhaps it is vital for Christians to relearn that the meaning of our lives and of our deaths – all our lives and all our deaths – is not held in a story of national meaning. Our lives and our deaths are created and recreated out of nothing. Our very creation and our re-creation are created out of the no-thing that is God’s grace.
This is the faith that has allowed me to pursue the different patterns of lies that people have told in order to justify war in the United States. For the sake of future work, I now here bookmark some of the mainstream journalists and scholars who have risked ticking people off by reporting on real memories and the danger of false memories about war in the U.S. I could bookmark radical truth-tellers, but, for the sake of congeniality, I am marking here ones that are more easily discussed around the picnic table next Memorial Day. I hope you find them useful. God Bless.
Naomi Wolf on Zero Dark Thirty and pro-torture propaganda:
The American History Guys on the “ethics” of warfare:
Brooke Gladstone and James Fallows on evading the hardest question about the war in Iraq:
The American History Guys on tidying up stories of war:
Bob Garfield and Mark Benjamin on the censoring of footage of dead soldiers returning from war:
Bob Garfield and Ted Gup on torture and Hollywood:
The American History Guys on stories about veterans coming home:
Brian Horne on nostalgia and the Cold War: