“Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground”

Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died serving in America’s armed forces.

Have you ever wondered just how many have died in our country’s major wars?  According to estimates from the Dept. of Defense and the Veterans Administration, the figure is around 1.1 million.  This chart, from pbs.org, breaks it down:


Regardless of how one feels about the nature of war, remembering our fellow citizens who have fallen while serving the country is a good thing.  Like Peter Rothberg, writing in The Nation, “I’ve always been sympathetic to the argument that the best way to honor the fallen is to make every effort to prevent needless deaths in the future. That means engaging in combat and military strikes only as a true last resort.”

In 1916, the great American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), reacting to the horror of World War I, wrote a poem entitled “Grass” in 1916.  In this short and spare piece, he looked beyond the wartime deaths of a single country and time, and used the personification of grass, to invoke the universal ruin of war:


NormandyAmericanCemetery4Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
 What place is this?
 Where are we now?

 I am the grass.
 Let me work.

In Carl Sandburg, scholar and biographer, Gay Wilson Allen wrote that in this poem “the scars of World War I will be covered by the perennial grass, not in a Pantheistic transmutation of men into vegetation, but as nature erases the scars of human violation of life.”

Photo: Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France


For Memorial Day: “Elegy in Joy”

Today is Memorial Day, a date set aside to remember those who have died while serving in the United States military. Since the great majority of those men and women lost their lives while engaged in armed conflict, I think it is also a good time to reflect on the meaning of war and it horror.

And remembering should not consist only of mourning, but also healing. When we leave wounds unhealed, we fail to adequately honor the memory of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Rukeyser2Below is an excerpt of a poem by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). An exceptional poet whose work reflected the themes of feminism, social justice, and Judaism. At one time she was also a reporter. As literary editor of Student Review, the leftist undergraduate magazine of Vassar College, she covered the 1932 Scottsboro trial in Alabama. Later, she supported the Spanish Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War; was jailed in Washington for demonstrating against the Vietnam War; and went to South Korea in the 1970s to protest the death sentence of poet Kim Chi-Ha, which resulted in one of her last poems, “The Gates.”

“Elegy in Joy” was part of a collection, Elegies, published by New Directions in 1949. The publisher says that the poem were “written over a seven year period from the end of the Spanish Civil War, through World War II, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, to the start of the Cold War.” It is a poem about healing, and about peace.

Alice Walker, best known for the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple, once said “Muriel Rukeyser loved poetry more than anyone I’ve ever known. She also believed it could change us, move the world.”

Elegy in Joy [excerpt]
by Muriel Rukeyser

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

The word of nourishment passes through the women,
soldiers and orchards rooted in constellations,
white towers, eyes of children:
saying in time of war What shall we feed?
I cannot say the end.

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

This moment, this seed, this wave of the sea, this look, this instant of love.
Years over wars and an imagining of peace.  Or the expiation journey
toward peace which is many wishes flaming together,
fierce pure life, the many-living home.
Love that gives us ourselves, in the world known to all
new techniques for the healing of the wound,
and the unknown world.  One life, or the faring stars.

Copyright © 1949 by Muriel Rukeyser.


Go For Broke! In Honor of Memorial Day and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Some words about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team:

I have never been comfortable with the notion of a “good” war. I think perhaps the lone exception is World War II. A confrontation in the starkest terms between good and evil.

The 442nd was a WWII infantry unit composed of Japanese-Americans, the most highly decorated unit in American military history:  9,846 Purple Hearts, 4000 Bronze Stars, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 22 Legion of Merit medals, 560 Silver Stars, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 21 Medals of Honor.

The 442nd hike up a muddy French road in France, in late 1944.

These men were Nisei, Japanese Americans born on U.S. soil. Many of them volunteered for service out of the camps where their country had interred them. Interred is a polite word for imprisoned.

Soldiers from Hawaii called themselves Buta-heads (Buddha-heads).

In 1951, MGM filmed the story of the 442nd in Go for Broke starring Van Johnson. There’s a scene where a Catholic chaplain is speaking to a wounded Nisei soldier lying on a stretcher. Noticing the beads in the soldier’s hand, the chaplain asks why he hasn’t seen him at any of the services.  The soldier says, “Different type of rosary.  I’m Buddhist, Father.” The priest pats him on the shoulder and reassures him that he is there if the soldier needs him.

A Nisei soldier looks for German movements in a French valley 200 yards away.

During WW ll, military Chaplains were either Christian or Jewish. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked if any of the Japanese American soldiers were Buddhist, she was told no. In the absence of Buddhist chaplains, many Buddhist soldiers seeking spiritual guidance converted to Christianity. The U.S. Military would not allow a “B”, signifying Buddhist, on dog tags claiming it would confuse medics looking for a soldier’s blood type and the space was left blank.

The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, including the battles at Belmont, Bruyeres and Biffontaine. It was at Biffontaine where the unit fought the legendary battle to rescue the Lost Battalion. 800 Nisei soldiers died rescuing 211 members of the Texan 1st Battalion.

This is the event that stands out in my mind: when members of the 442nd were attached to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and they participated in the liberation of a Dachau concentration camp. I wonder what it must have been like for a young Japanese-American, having left an internment camp to go fight for the country that put him there, to be witness to the horror of a Nazi death camp, sharing food with Jewish inmates who were nothing but skin and bones  . . .

When the Nisei soldiers were sent ahead, they followed the same path that the Nazi’s used to march Jewish inmates to the camp. They noticed lumps in the snow and went to investigate. One of them later said, “Most of them were skeletons or people who had been beaten to death or just died of starvation or overworked or whatever. Most of them I think died from exposure because it was cold.”*

When you meet members of the 442nd, they’re just like the other American soldiers of that generation. They don’t much care to talk about the war.

You can learn more about the 442nd by visiting the Go For Broke National Education Center and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society. In reading the history of the unit and the individual stories, one might be tempted to think some screenwriter thought it all up. Countless acts of bravery, heroism, selflessness. Living in the misery of rain, mud and snow. Death, a constant companion . . . It was real, their war was hard, and these Asian-Americans, like all the other WWII soldiers deserve our appreciation.

“All of us can’t stay in the [internment] camps until the end of the war.  Some of us have to go to the front.  Our record on the battlefield will determine when you will return and how you will be treated.  I don’t know if I’ll make it back.”
– Technical Sergeant Abraham Ohama, Company “F”, 442nd RCT, Killed in Action 10/20/1944

President Barack Obama talks with his guests before signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office.

*George Oiye testimonial.