As a pacifist, I don’t know what to do about Veterans Day.
On this year’s November 11, I drove down the main street of a town that is home
to a naval air station. Five days earlier I’d travelled that same route the
opposite direction on my way to a writing workshop. That morning, winds had
gusted at 35-45 miles per hour and whipped the American flags that lined the
street in a wild dance.
But on Veterans Day, the sun shone, and the red and white
stripes fluttered in a light breeze as I drove toward home. I tuned the car
radio to NPR and listened to how some people across the country were honoring veterans.
The station played an excerpt of Vice-President Joe Biden’s speech at Arlington
Cemetery. I pictured the rows of white tombstones lined up over the burial
ground’s 624 acres; over 400,000 veterans have been buried there since the
The words and mental images got me thinking about those
veterans and about the new poetry book in my backpack, Nothing Saved Us - Poems of the
by Tamra J. Higgins. Intrigued by the title and the subject
matter, I’d ordered the book a few weeks earlier when a friend posted a notice
online about it.
Over the course of two years, Tamra interviewed her father about
his experiences as a Marine on the front lines in the Korean War. She turned
the results of those conversations into poems to show how soldiers cope with
war’s absurdity. She used short and abrupt lines to reflect the rhythm and syntax
of her father’s voice.
Although I’d had time to read at the workshop, I hadn’t even
opened the book. The author’s exploration of this “forgotten war” had compelled
me to buy a copy, but it was also what made me resist reading it.
My stepfather served in the Marine Corps in Korea. That was
nearly ten years before he came into my life when I was six. He never talked to
me about his time in the Marines or about the war, but my mom was proud of his
service and told me he’d received a purple heart medal. All that I remember is
the tattoo on his left forearm—a ferocious-looking bulldog wearing a helmet
with the letters USMC inked underneath. When my stepfather died twenty years
later at age 54, that medal he’d been awarded entitled him to burial at Arlington
Cemetery, a thousand miles from our home in southern Illinois. Instead, my mom
arranged for Marines to preside at our small town cemetery; they presented her
with an American flag crisply folded into a tight square.
Earlier this year I visited the Korean War Memorial in
Washington, DC. Tears choked me as I walked among the 19 stainless steel,
larger-than-life-size statues representing a squad on patrol. I looked for one
that resembled my stepfather and tried to imagine him over sixty years ago, among
those soldiers trudging through Korean villages. I walked the length of the
164-foot-long black granite memorial wall. Photographic images were sandblasted into it depicting soldiers,
equipment and people involved in the war. I was
grateful that no matter how long I searched, I
wouldn’t find my stepfather’s likeness, because he had survived.
In this past week I’ve read all of the poems in Nothing Saved Us,
appreciated those stories by another daughter of a Marine. A daughter who could
listen, did listen, to her father’s stories. Tamra Higgins’s dad sounds like
someone my stepfather would have liked.
He received a purple heart, too, for injuries
he sustained that cost him his right leg.
But the soldier’s life is only part of the story of war Tamra wanted
to portray through her poems. As she researched the Korean War, she read
several memoirs of Korean women who had been trapped in the throes of that battle.
In the second section of the book, Tamra explores the impact of war on
civilians through the voice of a Korean woman. In these poems, Tamra used long
lines, based loosely on sijo, a
traditional style of Korean poetry developed more than 750 years ago. That story is heartbreaking, too.
So, where does this exploration of Veterans Day and the Korean
War leave me?
Tamra’s poems and the flag-lined street don’t evoke for me pride
or even gratitude for the veterans’ service.
I grieve for my stepfather and Tamra’s father and all the
other men and women—military and civilian—who experience the violence of
war. I grieve for the children who lose
parents, the parents who lose children, the spouses who are widowed. I grieve
for the land, the homes, the businesses, the places of worship, and the
national treasures that are destroyed.
And as I drive along flag-lined streets, I pray that someday
we’ll put an end to war.