This week, 96 years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the conflict known as WWI ended when the Armistice went into effect – an event we now celebrate as “Veterans Day”.
I probably would not be writing this today if it weren’t for that Armistice.
My Grandfather was a soldier in France, a corporal, in the fall of 1918. Although he’d been in the military for some time (at first ill for several months with what may have been the infamous “Spanish Flu”, then in an artillery unit), his first taste of face to face combat with the enemy was set for a couple of days after that symbolic day that ended the war. He and a team of soldiers were to attack a German fortification (which he termed a “castle”) with the goal of diverting attention from the main attack elsewhere. In military terms, “divert” means “get shot at,” which is why he and his fellows called these teams “Suicide Squads.” The survival rate was typically under 5% – if they were doing their jobs right (and my grandfather never did anything “halfway” in his entire life).
He and his fellow soldiers in that squad survived only because the diplomats agreed to end the war at that symbolic time, and did not drag out negotiations for a couple of more days. If they’d delayed for only a day or two, I might never have existed.
Sermon presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC (Brattleboro, VT)
September 28, 2014
Exodus 32:7-14 (NRSV): The Golden Calf
Acts 16:11-15 (NRSV): Paul Establishes the Philippian Church
Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV): Paul Advises the Philippian Church
One thing I’ve noticed about my son, like most young children, is that when he plays, it’s about the process – or journey, if you will – not the goal. For instance, when he’s building a tower with his blocks and it gets too high, he knocks them down and starts over again.
His play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor the tallest, nor any other human measure of success. It’s about playing – about stacking blocks. That’s where his fun is, that’s what makes it meaningful and valuable to him. What’s more, his parents’ judgment of the value of his work is not important. …Well, at least not yet! – But our participation in his play is important.
A couple of years ago we had a dinner for some of our friends and their toddlers at our home. Once everyone arrived, we all went into the room where the kids were playing, and … guess what … … … The Dads saw the kids playing with AJ’s big cardboard blocks!
Well, as good fathers, we had to participate, didn’t we?
My hometown, Brattleboro, VT, has built a new bridge across Whetstone Brook to replace the historic but long outdated “Creamery Bridge” (which will be turned into a pedestrian bridge).
Although there seems to be a consensus that some person should be honored by naming the bridge after them, there is much controversy over exactly who to memorialize in such a manner. I hear that a very vocal group wants to name the bridge after a local man who gave his life in service of our country. — A similar effort a few years ago resulted in a bridge in the center of town being named after a young man who died in (I think) Iraq.
I applaud and agree with the motivation behind the campaign to name the bridge after him, and have no objection whatsoever to honoring those who have served our country, particularly those who have had to put their own lives on the line while doing so. (If anything, I think they should get far more recognition, honor and support than many or most of them do. Without them, the USA would never have become the great nation that it is.) Yet, I have two significant reservations with regards to naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier.
The first is that we don’t have enough bridges! Brattleboro, VT has perhaps a couple of dozen significant bridges in town (though some are Interstate Highway, not local, bridges). Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Brattleboro natives have served in the military over the years; and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Should we name a bridge for each of them? What do we do when we run out of bridges?
Second, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with those serving in the military, it’s all about your buddies. Going into a fight, you are betting your life that the men and women with you, and supporting you, will “have your back” when the going gets tough. That sort of complete reliance on each other to survive in the midst of battle is at the root of a camaraderie and trust that I have often heard those in the service speak about, but which most of us civilians will never experience.
In the center of town, on the “Common”, are a number of monuments. They list the names of those from Brattleboro who served and died in every war since the Civil War. What’s important to me about these monuments is that there are many names listed. A fallen soldier’s name is listed along all of his (or her) comrades in arms who died in the same war. The companionship that sustained them, and which more than a few gave their lives in battle-for is echoed in these monuments. They are remembered together in death, just as they served together in life. By having all of these heros memorialized and honored in one place, it gives us who pass by a chance to reflect on the dedication of the men and women of this town to serving our country, and the magnitude of the losses we’ve experienced in the fight to keep this country free.
Therefore, while naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier will honor that individual’s memory, and provides closure and solace to those they leave behind, it in effect dishonors the very thing that they and their comrades risked their lives to preserve – the lives of their fellow comrades in arms. From what I’ve heard WWI, WWII and younger veterans all say when lauded for their service, I also think that most of those who have died while serving this country would be unhappy to hear that their sacrifice is being honored above the sacrifices of so many of their fellow servicemen. Therefore, listing the fallen on a monument that honors all fallen soldiers from the same war together, and in a place where soldiers from all other wars are similarly honored, is (to me) much more appropriate, and provides a fitting way for us as a people to remember and honor those who gave their lives that we might remain a free and democratic country.
So, I ask the Selectpersons of Brattleboro to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to honor a single servicemen when naming this bridge. Also, we must consider that the person we will memorialize through having their name on this bridge says something about who we are as a town, and what we think is important to be remembered about our community in years to come. While every life is important, and the loss of even a single soldier in battle is a disaster to those who knew and loved them, no soldier (at least in this era) achieves victory by fighting alone. Every soldier that has fallen was part of a community, a community they were fighting to preserve. Let’s honor what they felt was worth giving their life-for.
For me, a bridge is about connection and community, about bridging gaps and making paths were no path existed before. Therefore, whomever we name this bridge after should be a person whose life impacted Brattleboro in a positive and significant way, someone whose life reflected deep concern for the community, someone who worked to bridge gaps, and/or someone who built paths were no path existed before.
Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).