Fire, Glory and the Old Lie Revisited

Walking early this morning, I make my usual loop through the Baltimore County Courthouse grounds. I pass the fountain with its wrought-iron fence, and arrive at the old green cannon with its perfect pyramid of cannonballs. I know that old cannon well. Once, when I was a child, my father surprised me by hoisting me up onto the barrel. Over the years, I have brought my children to the courthouse to watch the parades on the Fourth. They, too, have clambered around the cannon and smacked their hands against the cool surface of those 14 cannonballs. My children are grown now; they are old enough to serve in the armed forces.

The air is humid this morning, and I'm a little winded. I put a hand on the cannon, lean against it to catch my breath, and for the first time notice how fussy the old thing is, with its ornate lettering, engraved flowers and curlicues. I read the dedication on the stone base and discover that it is a Spanish cannon, captured at Manila in 1898. The base bears on one side the words of George Dewey - "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley" - and on the other the words of Winfield Scott Schley - "There is glory enough for all." Engraved on the barrel itself are the date and place of origin: 1781, Mexico. And all these years I've assumed the cannon's importance was somehow attached to the Civil War.

Fire. Glory.

I walk slowly around the side of the courthouse and come to the natural alcove formed by a low ornamental maple and perennials. I sit on the bench, as I always do, hidden from passers-by. From here I may contemplate the block of polished black stone, "Dedicated to the Citizens of Baltimore County Who Served the Nation in Southeast Asia, 1957-1975." There are 147 names, engraved in two rows, as cleanly unadorned as the names on the long, black wall down the road in the capital.

But pressed against my imagination now are the cannon words: fire and glory, old words entwined with flowers and flourishes.

Thirty-five years ago, I was an Army nurse. I did not serve in Southeast Asia. I served on the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

Fire. I saw all degrees of what it wreaks on human flesh. I saw soldiers die - some within days of being evacuated to our unit, others after hanging on for weeks, after enduring pain I have not the words to describe and the unspeakable indignity of amputations.

Glory. I saw soldiers survive. It takes great courage to live, despite the burns. Certainly such courage deserves the crown of glory. But with burns, when all is said and done, it does not look like glory. It looks like disfigurement.

The poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in battle just a week before the armistice of World War I, wrote the famous lines about the "old lie" that it is dulce et decorum - sweet and becoming - to die for one's country. Owen's poem is a lasting memorial to soldiers of every generation, an honest and unflinching account of agony and death.

Over the years, my memories of the burn ward have hardened and become mute. When I look back, it is as though they have become imbedded in polished stone. Still, with fire and glory in my head this morning, I tell a story from 35 years ago:

I turn on the suction machine and lean close to do my work. Within the intravenous lines and encircling machines, he lies before me, naked but for the small, white washcloth placed over his privates. Every inch of him is burned, every inch coated with thick, white Sulfamylon. He has no face to receive my pity, only the misshapen suggestion of a face. He cannot part his swollen eyelids. He cannot open his throat to cry. I am 23 years old, but he is younger still - 18, younger than my brother back at home, who has not yet been drafted. It is my job to keep his airway clear, so that he can breathe. I talk to him from time to time, hoping that he can hear. I tell him it is going to be all right.

No one wants to hear such a painful story, certainly not now. As we numbly shake our heads over the mounting deaths, the troubling missteps and miscalculations, we seek instead the glory - stories of heroism and courage on the part of those who serve the nation. The old lie is still floated, though the wording may be changed.

I stand before the Vietnam memorial on the courthouse lawn and let my fingers touch each name in turn. I wonder what sort of memorial we will have for those lost in the present war. Clearly, flowers and flourishes belong to an era gone by, but shall we erect something other than a list of names on stone? If - in some searing dream - each of us could lean close and, for a moment, breathe the same air as one dying soldier, perhaps we would settle for nothing short of truth. It would be painful, like fire. But perhaps it would prepare us for peace.

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