Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Happy Few

I watched the movie Pearl Harbor the other day; it's one that I can watch over and over. It moves around a lot and it tells a much broader story than the events of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, but I like it. I think I like it because although I usually like to stick with a main story line, the side drama in a historically-based story adds something to the movie for me if it isn’t drawn out to absurdity (Apocalypse Now). I guess I like depictions and biographies that let me have a sense of the people in action living their lives in the midst of these great events.

I remember very clearly from my earlier days men in their 40s who were World War II veterans. When I enlisted in the Marines, there were Marines on active duty who were veterans of that war. So, the first World War II veterans I met were fairly young men.

Today, these veterans are part of a dwindling population. The youngest of them are over 80 years old. In various places today, we see them getting around with the use of a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair. We see them sitting silently in the corner seemingly overwhelmed by the activity going on around them. We see them needing help so they can perform the most routine life functions. We see them bedridden in the final throes of their lives. Yet, we see that many are still very robust and energetic. It's hard to imagine them any other way than as we see them today, but we can if we try...

When we look toward the untold memories etched into the weathered creases in their faces, we can imagine them 17 years old, or 16 years old having lied about their ages so they could leave the comforts of home to fight our nation’s enemies. We see them full of life and energy and reckless determination and sheer heroism as they did what they could to preserve our way of life, even as they were really too young to know much about life themselves. We see them brooding in the anxiety of impending action and wading into the terror of battle, bearing witness to things few can imagine - sights and sounds that would stay with them forever. We see them writing home to their sweethearts and their mothers, and we see them reading their letters from home for the 20th time, hunkered under a poncho in a driving rain in a jungle foxhole. We see them playing cards and bragging up tales about the good life back home. We see them telling anyone who will listen about the great plans they have for a big job, a happy family, and a nice home.

But they're disappearing. After they’re gone, another generation will roll through and we’ll bring the veterans of the Korean War into focus. We can’t wait long – the youngest among them are in their 70s now, and we've done too little already to honor their service. Our youngest Vietnam veterans who our media culture has wanted us to remember as long-haired, bearded, field jacket-wearing, discontented ghosts, are pushing 60.

Separated by generations, they all share a trait. When their nation called them in the fullness of their youth and potential, they answered – and they answered with vigor. Many left a part of themselves behind in those far off places, and many left it all.

It does us well to remember these old men and women as they are today: living icons who might never tell you what makes them so great and important to our nation. Most never figured on living past 65; they were thinking about making it to tomorrow. But here they are: a few, a happy few, a band of brothers.

KING. We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.