“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
Every one of us is living a piece of history. In many cases we don’t realize the impact of it until much later. In my case, history began as one of the first Baby Boomers after World War II. My father died the month after I was born and my mother re-married three years later. My step-father served during World War II but was one of the rare individuals who spent his entire time stateside. I was alive during the Korean War but was too young to know it, so my first real contact with the impact of war came in the late 1960’s. I’d like to share a bit of that history with you now.
When I was in high school I played some basketball. The star of the Varsity team was a year ahead of me and, as a member of the Junior Varsity, I sometimes got to scrimmage against him. He had it all in high school, including the cheerleader girl friend. But college wasn’t for him so he ended up being drafted into the Army and dying in the jungles of Viet Nam. That came as a shock to me but nearly destroyed his younger brother who had been a teammate of mine.
Then there was my friend and classmate Bill. Bill had a crush on a girl at another school and he enlisted me to help him pen love letters to her. I didn’t know her name but, as fate would have it, I ended up meeting her at a mutual friend’s wedding. Sometime after we became an item I found out who she was and she found out who had actually penned those letters. I lost her when I left to serve in the military and that hurt me deeply. But it wasn’t until my 10-year high school reunion that I found out that my friend Bill had paid a much larger price for his service.
These are the stories that I know about and there are thousands of others like them from every war our country has fought. Some are stories of courage. Some are stories of fear. Some are stories of commitment to principle. And some are stories of disillusionment. But every one of them has this is common: they are all stories of personal sacrifice. And that is what we focus on this weekend as we honor those who gave their lives in service to our country.
Sometime ago I was talking on the phone to my 96 year old grandmother. During our conversation grandma said that she was flying down to Wisconsin to visit some relatives over the Decoration Day weekend. Now I’ve got three college degrees and grandma didn’t complete her High School education until she was in her 80’s but I had to admit that I didn’t know what Decoration Day was. Finally, sensing my confusion, grandma said she meant Memorial Day. Now I may choose to wallow in my ignorance a lot of the time, but I figured that if I was going to talk about Memorial Day then I better find out how Decoration Day and Memorial Day came to be.
What I found out was that Decoration Day started in the years following the Civil War. The first known celebrations began in various places as early as 1866. Then, in 1868 General John A. Logan, the leader of a group of former military men, officially designated a day of observance for the purpose of decorating the graves of comrades who had died during the Civil War. During the first celebration of Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and then 5000 participants helped to decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there. After World War I, the observances also began to honor those who had died in all of America’s wars. Finally, in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday.
Something else I wasn’t aware of was the scope of what Memorial Day observes in terms of the specific wars and the numbers of casualties. It starts with the Revolutionary War which lasted from 1775 to 1783. Between 4000 and 5000 American lives were lost. Next was the War of 1812 which lasted from 1812 to 1815. Approximately 2000 American lives were lost. Then came the Civil War. In the four years from 1861 to 1865 an estimated 620,000 lives were lost between the two sides. The Spanish American War only lasted from April to August of 1898 but 5462 lives were lost – 90% of them to disease. Then came the war to end all wars, World War I. It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and 112,000 American lives were lost. The worldwide casualty count was estimated to be 10 million. Since World War I didn’t prove to be the war to end all wars we had World War II. The American involvement in World War II was from 1941 to 1945 and 405,000 lives were lost. The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953 and 54,200 American lives were lost. Immediately after that we began what later became known as the Vietnam War. It covered the years 1954 to 1975 at a cost of 109,000 American lives. Finally, at least at this point, we have the Persian Gulf War. It lasted nine months during 1990 and 1991 and 148 American lives were lost. Pretty grim statistics. But, we say, that is the cost of maintaining our freedom and our way of life.
When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s, I used to proudly think that we Americans had never lost a war. That is, unless you were on the wrong side of the Civil War. But that was in a time before I knew that the Korean War was not supported by the general population. That it was, in fact not called a war but a police action. And it was before I knew that we only fought to a draw. And it was also well before the turbulent times of the 60’s when the police action started in 1954 became the War in Vietnam that finally ended in a North Vietnamese victory. Finally, it was in a time when I thought that soldiers were heroes. And I had no way of comprehending that the veterans of both of those wars would return to something far removed from the parades, celebrations, and yellow ribbons that marked the return of those before them and those after them.
I served in the military for four years during the height of the Vietnam War. But I was smart and, in spite of the long waiting list, I was able to enlist in the Air Force in order to avoid being drafted. Being drafted meant a high probability of going to Vietnam and that was in the days before you could hope for a high lottery number in the draft. I knew that I didn’t want to go to Vietnam but I also had thoughts during basic training that, if sent, it would be the honorable thing to do. Within two years my attitude changed about how honorable it was and I began to oppose the politics that were driving our involvement. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, so instead of praying, I just hoped that I would never be put into a position where I would have to decide between my sense of duty and my conscience. I may have been selfish in wanting to avoid the problem, but I also had sincere empathy for those who had faced that decision.
So, you may be asking, how does any of this affect our lives as Christians? Well, as I worked on putting this together I really struggled with that. I thought about how the Old Testament is filled with wars that I don’t understand. I thought about how David put down a stick, his shepherd’s staff, and gained a great victory for the Hebrews by using a stone to slay Goliath. I thought about how memorable events were often marked by placing piles of stones at the place where they occurred. And I thought about scenes like Abraham, marching to the Lord’s orders, to a place where he would sacrifice his only son. How his son carried the sticks that would provide the sacrificial fire and how Abraham built an altar out of stones. But, in spite of my desire to find some clever pattern in the Bible, it really only came down to one thing. For me, the sticks represent the cross where Jesus sacrificed his life for us. The stones represent the tombstone that was rolled away to reveal his power over death. And with those sticks and stones we claim victory, in Jesus’ name, in the war for our eternity.
When General George Washington bid farewell to his troops he told them to return home and to live free, for their freedom had been bought for a price – the lives of those who had died in the war. As we observe this Memorial Day I would like to offer my heart felt respect for those who gave their lives in service to our country – either because of, or in spite of, the politics that drove their sacrifice. I hope that you will do the same. When Jesus bid farewell to his “troops” he reminded them that eternal freedom was theirs because he had paid the price with his life. Then he told them to share that freedom with all nations. I pray that you will do the same.
Please remember that the freedom we enjoy in this country cost many human lives and is fragile in nature. But the freedom we enjoy with Jesus costs us nothing and lasts forever.