Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Today in Olympia

Veterans Day in Olympia has been gray and wet. Fine rain has been sweeping across the area all day, sometimes more, sometimes less but always falling and always fine. I observed the spirit of the day by remembering all those who served. I did so on my own, not as part of any organized ceremony or parade. I simply wore my jungle shirt and laid a flower at each of the memorials at the Capitol. That way I didn’t have to hear the lies and distortions that constitute this nation’s military history yet could still honor the men and women who served before and after me.

At 11:00 am I placed a flower at the base of the Winged Victory Memorial, Washington’s World War I monument. I particularly like the fact that along with the soldier, sailor and marine is a Red Cross nurse, also striding along in heavy boots under the outstretched wings of Nike, Goddess of Victory. The memorial has been recently restored to its original bronze patina and looks quite fine. It’s a romantic image from a time when the World War was simply the Great War, it did not yet have a number. After placing the flower I stood silent and recalled the many images I have seen of that war: the blasted no man’s land, the thunder of artillery, the primitive life under fire in the trenches. The war to end all wars, indeed. I am sure must have felt that way in its enormity.

But the Great War was not the end, only the first round. That’s why my second stop was the World War II Memorial. Unlike the one in Washington, DC, this memorial is both sweeping and intimate. The former is just sweeping. This one captures the scale of the effort with monumental panels a sea of metal wheat stalks.. The panels carry the names of the state’s war dead in the silhouettes of soldiers. The shapes are not instantly recognizable; they sort of sneak up on the viewer. The panels loom large but the shapes and names give them impact. So do the wheat stalks; they conjure the image of the massed forces that confronted one of history’s most dangerous regimes. My father, three uncles and one aunt served in that war. I stand in the rain and recall the many veterans of this war I have known in my life. And even though that war t was a very large part of my history as a child, I can barely grasp its enormity; I can only comprehend it in the terms of the many individual battles that somehow all came together in a decisive victory.

Washington’s Korean War Memorial is somewhat removed from the other, across Capitol Way among the large bunker-like state office buildings. Like Winged Victory, the Korean War memorial uses figures to represent the feel of the conflict. Unlike Winged Victory, the message is not romantic hope but sheer endurance. The sculpture is rich in detail all the way to the Zippo lighter and boot tracks in the mud around the hoped for warming fire these poncho-clad figures hope for. On a wet day the raindrops dripping from their helmets and ponchos put me right with them in that difficult camp. E

Back across Capitol Way, I come to my last stop, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a very subdued monument much like the one in the other Washington. Names and black granite. The names stretch across the years from 1963 to 1975. This is my war. These are my comrades. The honor here is individual honor, not national. My war offers little to celebrate except its end. I do not feel any sense of accomplishment or achievement, only wonder at the courage and willingness of those who served and sadness at the betrayal of all that sacrifice in pursuit of a lie. I doubt if any or even most, of the men whose names are inscribed here thought their war was a lie. That is my own personal demon, the demon that is only tamed when I speak against war. I leave a flower on the ledge below the names in memory of all who served, under whatever circumstances, the ones I knew and the many others I did not.

I have one flower left and I leave it on the ledge under the panel for 1971, my year in the war, partly for my comrades but equally for all the future veterans of future wars. I give a final salute and walk away.

By this time I am pretty wet even though I am well layered for the occasion. Before leaving I walk to the Capitol Rotunda where some official observance is going on. At the door, an honor guard of is standing casually wearing black uniforms with white bootlaces. They nod in response to my “good morning”. Inside, more a small crowd is gathered as a white bearded veteran, also in the uniform of his organization, is speaking but the sound booms off all that marble to the point that it’s hard to make out what he is saying. I don’t stick around very long. I know the drill by heart and don’t need to hear it yet again.

I think my pilgrimage in the rain is more than appropriate for the occasion.

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