I still remember the photograph from my grade school history book. President Roosevelt was holding a copy of the newspaper with the bold headline “Congress Declares War.” It was December, 1941. Japan had attacked our military base at Pearl Harbor. The President and Congress had acted swiftly. There was only one dissenting vote in Congress. Over the next four years, 16 million young men and women would join the war effort, including my father. While some of them may have disagreed with elements of the strategy, just about everyone, inside and outside of the military, understood the objectives of the war. In 1945 when it was all over, there were massive celebrations all across our nation. A million people turned out for a victory parade down State Street. Yet war has always been a dirty business. People die; and when people die, it leaves a big gaping wound in somebody’s family. 300,000 service personnel died in World War II. The decision to drop the bomb that essentially ended the War in the Pacific continues to haunt our country and continues to be a painful reality for the Japanese people.
Since 1945 our country has drifted in and out of armed conflicts in a much less deliberate way. We have had the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict, which took a massive toll on our nation. In more recent decades we have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if you read the news carefully, our military has also been involved in places like Yemen and Somalia, and Libya and Pakistan—where we are not at war but where we have conducted air strikes or drone strikes. After the events of September 11, 2011, the whole idea of what constitutes war was thrown into confusion. You did not need be a sovereign state or have an army to carry out an effective military attack. All of this confusion about what is a war and who is my enemy and what is our objective has added to the mental stress of those who are sent to fight wars that others have started. When these conflicts came to an end or we withdrew our forces, there have been no great celebrations or victory parades like in 1945. And, as we all know by now, if our veterans returned home with physical or mental scars, they were not always able to get the help they needed at veterans’ hospitals.
Monday May 30 is Memorial Day, a holiday dedicated to our military veterans that dates back to 1866. It was originally called Decoration Day, since it was intended to be a day to visit the graves of those who had died in the War Between the States. Now, of course, it is better known for mattress sales and as “the official start of the summer.” But whether you are desperate for a new mattress or desperate to begin your summer vacation, I hope you will take time on Memorial Day to say a prayer of thanks for those who served and for those still wrestling with demons from their time in combat. You might even make a small sacrifice and come to Mass on Monday morning.
What would be the greatest gift we could give our veterans who gave their life for our country? They would probably not care for any more monuments of stone and metal, because stone and metal are as cold as death. They would probably like to know that their sacrifice made life better for the living. They would like to know that our country was really trying to fulfill its promise as a land of freedom and justice for all. They would probably like to know that we were working to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots; and that when we go to vote we would not vote just out of self-interest or the interest of those most like us, but would think about the good of all. They would probably like to know that we wanted to preserve the beauty and wonder of our country for future generations and were willing to change our life-style to do so. They would probably like to know that we are no longer divided between pro-life and pro-choice people but were concerned about the fate of all of God’s children from conception through adulthood; and that we were no longer speaking of some Chicago neighborhoods as “war zones” (because they know better than anyone what that means). And they would probably like to know that we are really committed to peace and that we will not force another generation of men and women to fight and die for causes that may not really exist. I think that would help all of them, whether religious or not, rest in peace.