“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”–Dwight Eisenhower, 1953 speech
Thirty-six years after it happened, I visited the site where World War II claimed its first casualty from the small, rural Alabama community of my childhood. A vacation in Hawaii included a visit to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona. The still-submerged ship is a shrine to the 1,100-plus sailors entombed in that vessel, which took a direct hit from the enemy and sank within seconds early on that fateful Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.
Etched in granite was the name of each sailor on board who perished in the hideous attack on Americans at Pearl Harbor. One of those names was Charlie Bibby, still a teenager when he was killed. I was only 5 years old when the attack took place and the news of Charlie’s death reached our community. The pain and suffering experienced by his family was shared by the entire community. The event has never escaped my memory.
While on vacation in our nation’s capital recently, my wife and I took our two grandsons, both now older than Charlie Bibby when he was killed, to visit Arlington National Cemetery on a Memorial Day weekend. Every grave was marked with a small American flag. It was a scene that evoked only silence.
We also visited the Vietnam Memorial. The memorial has become America’s Wailing Wall. On our visit, hundreds of people lined the black granite wall into which the names of 58,132 dead and missing men and women have been etched. Most visitors were passing in a quiet procession. Many took pictures. A few lingered. Some knelt in prayer. Others wept openly as they embraced a spouse or friend, or as they leaned against the wall and rubbed their fingers over the name of a loved one.
I, too, wept for a moment, but not for the same reason. A younger brother had survived a tour of duty in Vietnam and returned home safely, although suffering the lingering and crippling effects of Agent Orange. It was a scene I shall never forget.
On a pre-dawn Sunday morning in 1951, I watched as my mother and father and the wife of my eldest brother hugged their son and husband goodbye as he headed for South Korea and an unknown future. It was a painful scene that I remember quite vividly. Fortunately for our family, however, he did return, although in a medical ambulance to a lengthy hospital stay and a lifetime disability.
In between the Korean Conflict, as it was called, and the Vietnam War, a third brother was drafted for duty in the U.S. Army. As our nation was not at war, it was a less traumatic event, but still a reminder of the clouds of war.
Today, scenes of national guardsmen in battle fatigues hugging their spouses, children and relatives with a tearful goodbye into an unknown future have again become a much-too-familiar part of daily news reports. Likewise, it seems that an equally large contingent of individuals and groups opposed to the war is sharing the daily news coverage as well. Once again, we find our nation divided, as was the case in Vietnam.
A nation divided? Not in my opinion; rather, it is a nation grappling the reality that, as Gen. Eisenhower pointed out, war is not a way of life in any sense, regardless of is reason or motive. Thus, we are all victims in a war.
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things,” said John Stuart Mill. “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature, and has no chance of being free unless made or kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
National memorials should do more than remind us of war. They should encourage us to work for peace for all humanity. For as Gen. Eisenhower knew so well and stated so aptly, “Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
Jack Brymer of Birmingham, Ala., recently retired from Samford University after a 30-year career as a Baptist journalist. A slightly different version of this column appeared previously in the Anniston Star.