The young dead soldiers do not speak. Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses. (Who has not heard them?) They have a silence that speaks for them at night And when the clock counts. They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us. -Archibald MacLeish
I’m sure the number 32716064 won’t mean much to you; for most of us it would simply be a random 7-digit number, perhaps the winning combination to a Mega-Millions lottery. Actually it was a serial number engraved on a soldier’s dog-tag, one that played its own small role in the life of a particular family. Three days before that soldier was scheduled for a Stateside rotation, he was killed by a stray bullet while crossing a street. And while 32716064 is a number without especial significance, its presence on the little metal disk worn around the man’s neck did allow the US military, in timely fashion, to inform a mother looking forward to the safe return of her son, that indeed, her child would be coming home . . . but not in the way she had anticipated.
That serial number belonged to a private first-class who died more than 60 years ago, a 25-year-old born in Berlin, Germany, who had fled his native land because of its hatred of Jews, to cross an ocean, wear the uniform of his adopted country, and ultimately tragically lose his life in Japan. His name was Ismar Moritz Lubliner, the uncle who died eighteen years before my birth; the man who, if he were alive today, would be 93 years old, yet remains a perpetual 25 in the few photographs that preserve his memory. It is this quality of eternal youth that is most difficult to fathom; As I journey ever deeper into middle age, Uncle Ismar never gets any older. He will forever remain the carefree twenty-something hellion, who never settled down, never married, never had kids; a shadow memory whose monuments consist of the stone bearing his name in a military cemetery, and a grandnephew named Itamar, the Hebrew original of the German Ismar.
It’s hard to mourn the loss of a relative who died almost twenty years before one’s own birth. But there are many Americans whose grief and suffering are fresh — like the family of Specialist. Dwayne W. Flores, age 22, of Sinajana, Guam, killed two weeks ago when his unit was attacked in Kabul by a vehicle bearing an I.E.D., an improvised explosive device; or 1st Lt. Brandon J. Landrum, age 26, of Lawton, Oklohoma, whose life, along with 4 other servicemen, abruptly ended in Afghanistan last month. There are the families of the other 22 Americans who died in May alone as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, or the other 2,131 U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan since the conflict began. The families of these mostly young individuals can share their grief with you far more vividly than someone whose uncle perished nearly 70 years ago.
There’s nothing more moving than witnessing the observance of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s day of remembrance for those who gave their lives in defense of the Jewish State. At exactly 11 AM the morning of Yom Hazikaron, a two-minute siren sounds throughout the country: everything comes to a stop; pedestrians on the street freeze in their tracks; traffic comes to a halt. There are few things more powerful than witnessing an entire nation pay respectful homage to its war dead. That Yom Hazikaron and its mournful character flows at nightfall immediately into Yom Ha’azma’ut and the joyous celebration of Israel’s independence only underscores the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands so that the Jewish homeland might exist.
What if Memorial Day in the U.S. were scheduled each year on July 3rd for just this reason? What if we linked the freedom we so thoroughly celebrate on July 4th to the notion that liberty has come at a price, that entry to freedom’s highway invariably passes through a toll in human life? But that’s hardly likely to happen soon: if anything, it’s more probable one day July 4th will suffer the same fate as Memorial Day did 40 years ago, and be moved to a Monday — regardless of the date — for the convenience of creating a long holiday weekend.
Each Memorial Day there are solemn remembrances around the nation, but let’s face it — more people go to the beach or barbecues than attend commemorations at VFW posts or national cemeteries. Memorial Day is a time for white sales and great buys at auto dealerships throughout the land. A generic day for recreation and shopping like any number of other American holidays that are also generic days for recreation and shopping.
Which strikes me as rather odd, if only because rumor has it that America is still at war. Certainly, families whose loved ones are in Afghanistan will tell you that we’re at war; those who have lost loved ones, and those who have been permanently disabled because of battle injuries will also tell you that we’re at war. But since the Korean war (a “police action”), the very definition of “war” has gotten ever murkier.
Members of both major parties and the current administration will sometimes talk about being at war, but their actions tell a different story. If a country were at war, you would expect its leadership speak passionately about the need for sacrifice, urging its citizens to don the uniform of their country or to commit themselves to national service of one sort or another. You might also believe that members of Congress would candidly address why we chose to pay for our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through emergency appropriations and voodoo economics instead of raising our taxes . . . because wars cost lots of money. And if our country were truly at war, would responsible leaders seek to impose timetables of withdrawal based on calendar dates rather than actual strategic and tactical realities on the ground? Can you imagine what would have happened if Congress, in the wake of military setbacks in early 1942 in the Pacific, had issued an ultimatum to President Roosevelt by threatening a cut-off in funding pending the containment of Axis forces no later than March 15, 1943? If it is unthinkable, it is because sixty years ago America was truly at war, and no one pretended otherwise.
Perhaps we should bring our young men and women home, perhaps no matter what we do, Afghanistan will eventually return to a quagmire of ethnic conflict and violent fanaticism. But, then, we’d have to answer to thousands of American families as to why their sons and daughters died, so instead we will claim victory without defining it what that means, and we will publish schedules of withdrawal without considering that our enemies are as capable as we are of reading American leaders’ public announcements.
We live in a grotesque never-never land — or should I say a no man’s land — in which one half of our leadership informs us that though we’re at war, there’s no need to go beyond business as usual, while the other half our leadership informs us that we have sort of won without telling us what that means. And as far as the terrible vacuum that will be created in Afghanistan, as far as those who hate us, those who flew airplanes into major American landmarks that killed many more people than died at Pearl Harbor, they will somehow disappear — after all, in all Hollywood war films don’t the good guys always win? Isn’t there always a happy ending?. Myopia may abound, but that’s OK so long as it doesn’t affect the American way of life, the “plasma-hi-def -botoxed-i-pod existence, “which we presume to be our God-given constitutional right.
Judaism considers peace God’s greatest blessing, but an honest look at the totality of our tradition will tell you that pacifists we’re not. In specific instances, the Torah actually commands that we go to war. And in such circumstances, the Mishnah goes so far as to state unequivocally, “במלחמת מצוה הכל יוצאין, אפילו חתן מחדרו וכלה מחפתה — In a compulsory war, all go forth to battle, even the bridegroom out of his chamber, even the bride from under her canopy” (Sotah 8:7).
Geographically and culturally, it is a long way from the Mishnah to the sophisticated recruitment ads sponsored by today’s military on television. Yet watch one of these commercials and you will glimpse a mirror of American culture, one in which we would do well to take a hard look at ourselves. The ads typically feature an earnest young man or woman attempting to sell his or her doubtful parents on the virtues of joining the military. The teen speaks of the skills to be learned, the discipline to be gained, the money to be made, the college credits to be earned . . . and eventually the parents are persuaded, impressed by how thoughtful and forward-thinking their child is.
The unspoken assumptions of these commercials? They presume that no caring and responsible parent would ever applaud his child’s desire to join the military without a sell-job of some kind, because the desire to serve one’s country is insufficiently honorable to make the case. Patriotism is OK, put out the Stars-and-Stripes on Flag Day, recite the Pledge-of-Allegiance and the National Anthem at civic occasions, but the most compelling reasons to join the military? Career opportunities and free education. What is never mentioned, even obliquely, is that the only conceivable reason for putting your life in danger is to serve the country you love. And if no one dares mention that, and if our politicians decide that a few shall make the ultimate and supreme sacrifice in order that millions of Americans need not lift a finger or suffer a single inconvenience, that, my friends, is not the fault of Madison Avenue — its ours, because our leaders know us only too well.
We need to remember to do more than pay lip service to those who have died in the line of duty . . . which is why I write this nearly two weeks after Memorial Day. Maybe we need to ask ourselves how America will have the military it needs, if it’s always someone else’s kids wearing the uniform of their country; and most basically of all, to remind ourselves that that Americans are still dying in places with names Helmand, Kabul and Kandahar, whose consequences will be felt in places with names like Eldersburg, Maryland, Naples, Florida, and Estherville, Iowa.
On Memorial Day I took my three boys to morning services here at the Center, where we honored Americans who made the supreme sacrifice for their country. I talked to them about my father who fought with the British Army in North Africa and Italy during World War II, and their great uncles Ismar and Felix, who fought in the Pacific with the U.S. army during the Second World War. I tried to explain why it is that sometimes even the good must fight, or risk being subsumed by evil. And if they ask one day whether a time may come when they will be called to fight, I will tell them candidly that I pray to God each and every day that such a moment will never arrive; but by the same token, I could never look them in the eye and say that someone’s else child was less deserving than my own of the blessings that come living in a free land.
For six years we have included in our Shabbat services a brief prayer found in the Siddur for Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States, and is prefaced with the line, “In time of war add.” We beseech You, O God, to shield and protect our armed forces, in the air, on sea, and on land. Bless them with victory. May it be Your will that the dominion of tyranny and cruelty speedily be brought to an end and the kingdom of righteousness be established on earth with liberty and freedom for all humankind.”
To which I would add my own petition, “May it be Your will, God and God of our ancestors, that this week will be the last one we need to recite these words. And if not this week, we pray that it will next week. And if not next week, we pray it will be the one after that. But until that time, whenever it may be, we pray that you grant us the strength to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable, to give us the wisdom not to succumb to fool’s promises of instant victories and magical successes. Or as Abraham Lincoln once said it so well, “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . .”
Have our dead died in vain? They can’t answer that question . . . only we can.