War and its memorials always leave me feeling conflicted.
As a Gold Star daughter, I am always thankful when the sacrifices of the fallen and their families are acknowledged. During Monday’s dedication of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial at Fort Benning’s National Infantry Museum, one astute fellow summed it this way: “It is not the fallen who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, but those who have loved the fallen that do.”
As a Gold Star daughter, I am keenly aware of the many ways in which we glorify war in this country. Or as one young son whose father was killed in Iraq once told me: “My friends think it’s cool if your daddy dies in war, but I know it’s not. It hurts.”
Nobody is better at disguising the hurting part of war than the Gold Star families of today and those of yesteryear. Gold Star mothers will don their best dresses, slip into an uncomfortable pair of heels, do their hair up fancy, and force a smile through glossy lips in order to keep from addressing the great loneliness that overwhelms them in the dead of night and on bright Fall days.
They don’t talk about the laughter they miss hearing or the grandchildren never born, never even conceived. They don’t speak of the tears that soak their pillows or the wailing prayers they’ve prayed. Gold Star dads talk even less of their hurt. They speak primarily of the pride they feel about the sons or daughters they have lost. Their voices thick, their eyes bleary. They fear speaking the hurt the most. Fear the flood of grief they keep damned up because they are expected to be the stronger ones, the ones who don’t weep in public.
When I look in their eyes, hear them say their child’s name, I think of my grandmother, my grandfather. I think of my own mama and all the hurt she swallowed back all of those years. I think of the silence that took up residence in our house after Daddy died.
I have told the story of my own father’s death and my mother’s hurt so often, I fear others grow weary of hearing it. Why can’t you just get over it? was a common refrain I heard throughout my young adulthood.
It’s okay, I said to the Gold Star mother I had just met at the National Infantry Museum. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to work through my grief.
Still, she said, knowing.
Your daughter was beautiful, I said, noting the picture she wore. Her soldier daughter worked security. She was killed two years ago in a plane crash in Afghanistan.
Yes, my girl was beautiful, her mother agreed. She stroked the pin she wore that bore her daughter’s picture. It’s a move common among mothers, this stroking. When her daughter was alive, she would stroke her baby girl’s shoulder-length hair in the same fashion. The dead soldier’s sister got married recently. She will never get to marry. Never get to bear her momma grandbabies.
It’s hard, being a Gold Star momma. A Gold Star daddy. A Gold Star anything. No amount of honoring can ever account for the sacrificing. Yet, it matters that people do remember, that a nation never forgets. It helps the hurting not to hurt so much when the sacrifices are acknowledged. It helps a momma and a daddy to tell the stories of their sons and daughters. It helps to speak the name of the dead. It helps to speak of them, as they are remembered, living.
It helped Gary Strader and his wife to see their son’s photo etched in black granite. The photo of their boy was taken by a French photographer while Sgt. Morgan Strader was serving in Fullajah. The photographer had sent them a copy, but they had not known until they were there, boots on the ground at Fort Benning, that the very same photograph would be immortalized in that memorial stone.
Morgan loved to fish, his daddy said. He was explaining how the family had come to pick the burial spot for their son. Not at Arlington, but near a favorite fishing hole.
Steel and Stone. Of such things, stirring memorials are crafted. Designed specifically to evoke memories of the day planes and terrorists broke the Twin Towers in two. The broken beam a towering testament to all the dreams discarded.
We will never forget, said the New York City Fire Chief James Leonard. Reciting the stories of how the Vietnam veterans and their families were forgotten by the nation who called them to service, Chief Leonard recounted all those in his own family who served in Vietnam, all the sacrifices they made. Because of the way they were treated, he made himself a promise to never let the sacrifices of others go unnoticed.
He survived 9-11 simply because it was his day off. He wasn’t there, but he could of been. He remembers that whenever he remembers the men and women lost that day. He remembers them a lot because he lost everyone he worked alongside of when those towers fell. His co-workers, all dead.
Chief Leonard said military personnel and firefighters are cut from a common cloth. Woven together in the fight against terrorism, and against the sort of fear that can render a people powerless.
Having resolve is important, ask any soldier.
General (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey knows a lot about the importance of resolve. He’s been on the airwaves a lot in recent months speaking to this very issue. McCaffrey knows the cost of war. He’s paid it and earned three Purple Hearts along the way, as well as a couple of Distinguished Service Crosses. For years, we sat next to each other on the same advisory boards, talked a lot about war and its cost. We cheer each other on when one or the other calls out the misguided notions about war. We have both lost friends over our willingness to call a spade a spade. Neither of us is shy about calling people out for their warmongering.
McCaffrey is worried. He thinks everyone should be. There’s a draftdodger in the White House itching for war with North Korea.
People don’t realize that when you speak of blowing up countries, dropping nukes, that a lot of innocent people are killed, said the mom of the daughter slain in Afghanistan. It makes her angry, the casual way in which people who have never gone to war, never lost anyone to war, egg war on like it’s some Friday Night Lights competition between Bama and the Bulldogs. They just don’t get it.
They fail to understand that the cost of war is a 5-year-old boy and his younger brothers growing up with little memory of their soldier father, and most of that more a memory of stories told to them and not actually remembrances. The one son born after his daddy was killed in action only knows his daddy by story, never in the flesh.
For far too many war is simply what you do so you can have a parade. For those, war is the reason people should stand, not kneel, when the anthem is played. They don’t even begin to grasp the real reason men and women go to war isn’t to force people to stand – it’s to give them a reason to stand up, or kneel down against injustices.
But when you aren’t the one going to war, when it’s not your son, your daughter, your mother, your father dying, otherwise decent people develop a hankering for picking fights. Tough talk becomes their MO. The closest they’ll ever get to war is on their Facebook page over some Second Amendment meme.
People who don’t go to war, who don’t serve, those for whom military service has never been a legacy, they don’t visit war memorials of any sort. They know nothing of military culture. For them, war is simply big business. A way to generate revenue, to capitalize on the spoils of another country. They count the cost of war in the millions of dollars they earn through private contracts. They decry big government while fleecing that very same government.
Make no mistake about it – war is big business.
See how easy it is to be conflicted when you are part of the Gold Star family? On one hand, you’re grateful. On the other hand, you wish you didn’t belong to this club. You wish people didn’t count the cost of war in the millions they make from it. You wish instead everyone all across this nation would count war by the names carved into black granite. You wish you could force them to sit down and listen to the stories of the mothers and fathers grieving. You wish you could make voters count the cost of war by picking their way through the trash heap of dreams cast aside.
You wish. You wish. You wish.
You wish most of all to carve into the hearts of every man, and every woman the words General John Abizaid delivered during the dedication ceremony for the Global War on Terrorism Memorial at Fort Benning’s National Infantry Museum.
“Those we honor today have a right to demand that we create a better world,” the good General said. “May the dignity of all of mankind – not just Americans – be upheld.”
Sitting in the stands with my friend Mike, who is waging a valiant battle of his own, I held fast to General Abizaid’s words.
My friend Mike exudes dignity.
Morgan Strader’s dad, sitting on the other side of me, embodies dignity.
The community from which I hail – Columbus, Georgia – this community has always bestowed dignity upon the fallen and their families. They built this museum, made space for remembering, for honoring, for storytelling, for building an even wider net of community, far more far-reaching than just the grounds upon which we walked on Monday.
My hometown gets it. They really do.
They are determined to remain silent no longer.
They are committed to dignifying all who serve, past and present.
They are committed to telling the stories so that future generations never forget.
These memorials are their way of shouting: “Come here. Take a look. See, that name there? That’s the cost of war. That fallen soldier. Go ahead, weep. If war isn’t worth weeping over, what is?”
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (HarperCollins).