A Quiet Time for Patriotism and Reflection

In the final scene of “The Deer Hunter,” the friends and family of a fallen soldier gather at their small-town bar after his funeral. It is early in the day. A few of them break out eggs and scramble them. A few more cut bread or set the table. They sit together quietly. Then, in perhaps the most moving moment of the film, one man begins to sing.

God bless America,

Land that I love . . .

If I had one wish for Memorial Day, it would be that people who have lost their loved ones be allowed a simple moment like this. To visit graves and put down flowers. To open a photo album and shed a fond tear. To sit at a table with the surviving loved ones and share a meal and memories.

And that’s it. No speeches by politicians. No TV specials by opportunistic networks.

There is enough of that in the buildup to war.

It should be banned from our mourning.

Signs of conflict

As I write this, I am looking at two haunting images. One is a pair of Army boots. I keep them on my desk. They belonged to my Uncle Ed, a World War II vet who fought in the Philippines (and was my inspiration for the book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven“). He was the toughest guy I’ve ever met. Worked with his hands all of his life. Battled every disease you could name, right to the finish.

In all our years together, whenever I asked him about the war, he deferred. Oh, he’d talk about the transports, the barracks, the chow. But never about what happened, never any shooting or fighting. It was understood that certain things were private; he didn’t offer and we didn’t push.

The other image I see, just in front of his Army boots, is a newspaper photo of a female soldier in Iraq. She is leaning over an Iraqi prisoner’s body. The man is dead. His eyes are taped shut and his mouth is half-open. She is inches from his face, giving a thumbs-up sign and a big smile.

Her name is Sabrina.

I don’t know what my uncle would have made of that — any of it, the dead man, the taped eyes, the fact that a soldier was named Sabrina.

All I know is when he went to war, he left our shores willing to defend his country. And I imagine when Sabrina left, she had the same thought in mind.

Difficult changes

The difference between World War II and Iraq, people say, is that we were all behind World War II. That is true. We knew who, what and where we were fighting. And we believed we had a greater cause — saving the world from tyranny.

Today we lack such clear purpose. Some wonder if there is any purpose to this latest war at all. But to the soldiers who put on the uniform, who emerge from plane or boat into a foreign land, purpose is not so fuzzy. They are there to do as they are told, and to believe that those above them know what they are doing.

Sadly, at times, they do not. Not the people giving orders, or the brass giving them orders, or the lawyers giving the brass orders, or the politicians giving the lawyers orders.

And young men — and women — get killed.

And young men — and women — do things they never thought they’d do, or things no one believed they’d do.

This, more than anything, is the unifying fact of war, any war, anywhere, anytime. It changes people. It changes families. It brings death, horror and haunting memories.

Which is why Memorial Day should be a quiet, private commemoration — not an opportunity for someone to win votes or to have a “special sale.”

At the end of that scene in “The Deer Hunter,” the others at the table slowly join in singing. They finish, as the movie ends, with raspy, tear-filled voices.

God bless America,

My home sweet home.

If patriotism should break out on Memorial Day, this is how it should happen, in small rooms with lifted voices. Nowhere else.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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