Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Grateful Nation

Few things fix the mind on the here and the hereafter -- and the way human beings consign others to ford the pass between them -- than a funeral with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery, such as one I had the occasion to attend this week.

In almost every respect, the occasion was uncommon. The family party was small. The wound caused by the nearly year-old death was almost healed. The death itself had come peacefully in the deceased's bed at home. The veteran was a female naval intelligence officer during World War II.

More than a funeral, it was an inhumation. There was no bathos, nor rage at the loss of a loved one at the hands of a negligent, selfish president waging a criminally stupid war in the Persian Gulf. World War II was indisputably the last "good war."

Instead, there was an astounding display of quiet dignity on the part of the U.S. Navy. A marching band, what looked to my civilian eye as a battallion of sailors, a horse-drawn caisson with a casket draped in the stars and stripes, a color guard.

I was reminded of Kennedy's funeral. My older son thought it was someone else's cortege, not his grandmother's. Perhaps Rumsfeld's (I only wish!). It was beautiful.

The band played "Come, Holy Ghost." Then we processed to the burial site to the sounds of the Navy hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." We stopped. Six sailors held a flag over the cremains. The Navy chaplain led us in prayer. We stood.

A line of about six sailors formed, raised their rifles and fired a three-rifle volley. The practice has its origins in an ancient war custom of bringing all fighting to a halt to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight.

Finally, the six escorting sailors folded the flag to the sounds of "America, the Beautiful." A sailor handed it to the military chaplain, who then presented it to the next of kin with the following words, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the Chief of Naval Operations and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your mother's service to this Country in World War II."

Then came the bugler's "Taps."

"Taps" was composed by the Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, while in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, in 1862. It became known as "Taps" because it was often tapped out on a drum, whenever a bugler was unavailable, and was widely used by both Northern and Southern armies.

Restless thoughts followed me in the hush and quiet that ensued that sweltering day.

A part of me had been rebelling, fighting within me to scream out the rage of thousands of mothers at the inhumanity of war. I came of age at a time in which such displays in the face of the military were common, as the government was waging another useless carnage, in Vietnam. Yet the effect of the military's psychological operation on me had been uncanny.

Still a vaguely agnostic Christian, I had prayed with feeling and been moved at "Taps." My rebellious feelings had felt undignified in the face of young boys who might be called upon to die, no matter how cruelly meaningless the conflict.

It's a clever thing to have these ceremonies, one family by one family, out of sight from the glaring eye of the press. I had been challenged at the gate due to my press badge; I was there as an individual, not a reporter, so I hid it thereafter. But I then realized this is a part of war the military wishes to hide.

No recruiter would want young men to see what their mothers might face. No dissembling president using pointless war to dole out billions to cronies would want the public to know at what human expense.

In a sense, all military funerals are efforts to assuage the guilt and responsibility of military and political leaders for having taken someone from a family and returned that person dead. It's the least a grateful nation can do. All such funerals are a human response in the face of a shameful reality; they are cathartic ceremonies and a public confession that we are a murderous species.

How much more grateful all of us might be if war's casualties were much rarer, the occasions far nobler!

Such, at least, was true in the case of the military service rendered by this one Second World War Navy lieutenant I went to mourn, one whose intelligence analyses undoubtedly saved thousands of American lives and millions of others from the scourge of the Axis powers. Full military honors, in this instance, were a fitting coda to a life's struggle, well fought.
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