Monday, May 31, 2010

Casualties of War

Memorial Day has always been somewhat surreal for me. The day is set aside to remember our war dead and to reflect upon on the price of freedom. Many cemeteries line their driveways with American flags. Many communities will have a memorial service at a monument built for veterans. Such somber reminders. And yet many will spend this day playing on the lake or traveling home after a holiday weekend. Others will invite friends over for a cookout and conclude the evening by watching a fireworks display. Surreal. The very freedom that allows us to do such things is often the farthest thing from our minds. But who can blame us? It’s easier to play than to remember—to remember the human cost of war, the grief of those who get news their loved one was killed in battle, the kids who grow up without a father, knowing him mostly through a picture on the mantle next to a folded American flag. So, so many have died on fields of battle for their country, for their buddies, because somebody had to. It's right and good to remember them and their families.

But death is not the only casualty of war. You can’t visit a VA hospital without stepping aside for the man with one leg on his crutches and the man with no legs in his wheelchair. And then there’s the guy on the elevator wearing a shirt with an empty sleeve, and next to him is the man with a face scarred from burns sustained in combat. Death is not the only casualty of war.  Not every casualty comes home in a flag-draped box.

I think of two veterans today who have brought that truth home to me. The first is my father: a U.S. Navy Seabee in the South Pacific during World War II. It was bad enough getting shot at by Japanese snipers while trying to build an airfield, bad enough watching buddies picked off like ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. But then there was the letter—the one from his wife, the one that was supposed to cheer him up, give him hope, and remind him of what he had to look forward to if and when he ever got off those God-forsaken islands in the Solomons. “Mail call! McCallum, looks like you’ve got a letter from your wife.” I can hear his buddies whooping it up and giving him the business. And I can see him taking that letter, running it past his nose to check for the scent of perfume, then clutching it tightly while he found a quiet place to open it, to read and reread every word. Ahhhh! Just a little piece of home in that hell-hole in which he found himself in 1942. I can see him carefully opening it (my father was particular about such things), unfolding it, holding it up to good light, and reading the salutation. Well, what hit him next might as well have been a Japanese bullet. The name that followed “Dearest …” wasn’t my daddy’s name. Seems his wife had found a new lover and had mistakenly enclosed her love letter to him in my father’s envelope. Between his war experiences in the jungles of the Solomons and that letter, my father was never the same again. At least that’s what his family has told me. Like so many others who apparently came home in one piece from places like Tulagi, Normandy, Viet Nam, and Afghanistan, there were wounds we couldn’t see with our eyes, wounds that haunt them and hurt them for their rest of their lives. Casualites of war—body intact, soul in more fragments than the remnants of a mortar shell. So I think of my dad on Memorial Day.

And I think of another veteran named Steve. Steve grew up in a Christian family, volunteered for the Marine Corps, and ended up in Viet Nam. Steve was never the same after his experiences there. He was introduced to drugs while fighting that war, and except for a few years, never could quite kick the addiction when he came back home. That was tough enough. But I’ll never forget the day he told me about something he did in Viet Nam that was so heinous he had never told a soul until he told me, and then he made me swear I would never tell another soul either. He was hoping, I think, by confessing his sin that he would find some relief from the guilt he had carried for almost 20 years. I don’t think he did. He did get his life on track with Christ for a few years, but then when trouble once again battered down the door of his soul, he soon reverted back to the drug scene and died with a needle in his arm. Casualties of war. Many years passed between Steve’s tour of duty in Viet Nam and his death, but no one will ever convince me that the two were not somehow intertwined.

So on this Memorial Day 2010, I pause and give thanks for the brave men and women who died in battle for our freedoms. And I pause and give thanks for the brave men and women who are dying one day at a time from the internal scars of war. You’d think with all the destruction and the killing and the grieving war leaves in its wake that somehow we human beings would find better ways to solve our differences. Maybe the fact that we don’t and we won’t is the most surreal thing of all about a day like Memorial Day. But I am not without hope. It's just that I don't look outward for hope; I look upward—longing for the return of Jesus, His decisive destruction of evil, and the great vision of the prophet to come true: “He shall judge between nations and decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).


  1. Hi John, Your post brought it home today. Fluff is nice but we need to be kicked in the gut from time to time.

  2. Thanks, John, for putting the very human face on the day. It's so much more than waving the flag. War is always a human tragedy. Looking upward...