Reflecting on War, and Those Who Do Not

I come from a line of tremendous English women. My grandmother, Hilda, will celebrate her 94th birthday this year. October 18 was the 93rd anniversary of her father's death.

He died in the trenches of France in 1917. It has never been clear to me whether Hilda actually met him or not. The one person who would know for sure--her mother Edith--died at the age of 37 after cutting herself on a tin can and developing a fatal sepsis. Hilda was an orphan, raised by her older sister.

A long time ago, I blogged about Robert Raymond, mentioning only that I had this photo and his name. To my astonishment, a military historian read my blog and found Robert's records for me. Suddenly, after all these years, we not only knew when he had died, but where he was buried. Before that, my grandmother had no idea where he lay. By the time I found this out, she was too old to travel, but I have made a pledge that I will visit Robert's grave; I will sit and talk to him and tell him about his granddaughter, great-granddaughter, and the two great-great granddaughters who issued from my body. If fortune is kind, they will be with me, and can connect with the man that none of us ever knew.

I have this photo of Robert, and I stare at it, trying to imagine what his life was like. And I try to picture the day that Edith received the news that the man whose child she was carrying in her arms had died in the war. I imagine that it was a telegram delivered the news. Perhaps she had just finished feeding Hilda, and the child slept upon her shoulder while Edith dusted. I see her, as the color drains from her face and her knees go weak and she keeps herself from screaming lest she wake their baby.

She must have missed her man. He was only 25, a couple of years younger than she was, and I imagine they were passionate, devoted lovers before his nation sent him off to fight in its most-wasteful of all wars.

She was not alone, of course. England gave up a generation of young men to World War I. As did France, and German, Austria-Hungary. And for what? A few re-drawn borders? The honor of a few noblemen? I can only think of World War I with rage.
Its reminders are everywhere in Europe. The monuments to it list more names than you would think could live in the tiny villages through which you travel. But that's what happens when you lose a generation. A generation. And English widows raised their boys only to watch as their sons went off to fight another war.

I wish I knew something more about Robert. I wish I knew what made him laugh. I wonder who his mates were, who he met down at the local for a pint after work. Did he carry a photo of Edith in his jacket? As he was dying, did he think of the children (my grandmother's half-sister, Jessie) that he would never see again? Did he wonder how Edith would carry on without him?

In France, this summer, my lover and I drove the coast of Normandy, passing by the landing beaches of D-Day. The loss of life is unfathomable, and when you visit the Cimitiere Americaine, the acres of white crosses and Stars of David point out to you just how small and insignificant your life is. After all, if this many men could have been sacrificed trying to take small stretches of beach, how many total souls were lost during that war that was never supposed to happen?

On the 11th hour of the the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, those who had fought in The Great War swore it would never happen again. Twenty-one years later, tanks rolled across Flanders fields, and bombs dropped from the sky onto once-peaceful villages. This time, the war was justified, but the end result was the same. Mass destruction. The loss of a generation of men. And memorials by the score scattered across the French countryside like milkweed.

Outside a castle in a small town in Normany is a pyramid. Comprised of sand taken from Utah beach, the memorial is to the World War II dead. What makes this memorial unique, is that, unlike the stone obelisks we build to stand forever as testament to our love affair with war, this pyramid is intended to erode away. Buried within it are metallic objects recovered from the battlefields: bullets, guns, pieces of boots, helmets. Relics of the objects that were worn by, or killed, human beings. The idea behind the pyramid is that, as the sand wears away, objects will be freed, so that future generations may feel with their own hands these relics of war.

As I listen to George Bush explain his reasoning for sending men and women off to slaughter, I long to take him to these places that I have seen. I want him to wander the cemeteries, see the memorials, notice that, even now, flowers are placed on the graves by those whose relatives were lost. He wouldn't have to travel as far as Europe: I'm sure there are military dead buried near his home.

I wish he could meet Hilda, hear from her lips what it was like to grow up without a father. Perhaps, God willing, he would finally begin to understand what he has wrought.

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