Learning to Grieve

America’s Tragic Attractions

The Village Idiot

Following my humid stint at Fort Knox, I had the privilege to shadow a first lieutenant stationed with the 25th Infantry Division in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Although our weekdays were spent laboring at our company’s motor pool, the weekends were ours to explore. As such, on our last Sunday on Oahu, the other cadets and I decided to visit the memorial at Pearl Harbor.

The entrance to the park was largely packed with tourists. Children were playing with tablets, mothers tried their best to organize family photos, and various tourists were fiddling with their translator headsets. Our ticket to see the USS Arizona was for 13:30, and having arrived there around noon, we naturally stopped by the park gift shop.

The gift shop was stocked with your standard set of trinkets, t-shirts, maps, and coffee table souvenirs. However, a unique item immediately grabbed my attention: a hand painted mahogany model of a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane. The Zero was the unchallenged master of the early Pacific Theater, a feat of Japanese engineering. The model was gorgeous, but it seemed slightly out of place. After all, 76 years ago, it was the Zero that wrought havoc on the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor.

Seventy-six years ago, the sight of the Zero sparked terror across the Pacific; from China to Guadalcanal, the Zero symbolized the cruelty and destructive power of the Japanese Empire. Today, all that remains of Japan’s imperial air fleets are playthings, wooden toys sold to American collectors at a gift shop built on a former Japanese target. The situation struck me as odd; I felt as though I was visiting the set of a Star Wars shoot, not the site of a national tragedy. I don’t oppose National Parks selling souvenirs. After all, these parks need to pay their staff. However, the model plane drew my attention to a larger problem I have with American war memorials: the American perception of war.

For most of America’s post-Civil War history, the American civilian has rarely (if ever) witnessed war firsthand. Consequently, war is generally viewed as a foreign affair. Our servicemen go abroad to fight and die, while the general populace remains at home, free to tune in at their leisure and watch the bloody spectacle unfold on television. Eventually, wars end, monuments are built, and the nation moves on. A movie is made, and heroes are immortalized.

But that’s not what war is. War is not beautiful. War is the screams of helpless men. War is the sobbing of orphaned children. War is the silence of a city wiped from existence. War is the empty chairs meant for the fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who will never return.

At 13:30 we stepped on the escort boat that would take us the USS Arizona memorial. The memorial itself is pristine, clean, and—like the mahogany model of the Japanese Zero—disturbingly beautiful. From atop the monument you can look down at the remains of the USS Arizona, the final resting place of over two-thirds of her crew. Oil slowly makes its way to the surface, as if the ship continues to bleed. If you look down, you can imagine the sound of twisted steel crushing unsuspecting sailors, and for a moment, you can almost see the desperation felt by the 1,177 souls who sank with her.

This is not an anti-war piece; I am an avid interventionist and strongly believe that the maintenance of the American empire is better for most people when compared to potential post-American alternatives. Moreover, every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine I’ve met is willing to give their life at a moment’s notice if our nation deems their sacrifice necessary. However, I’m concerned with how casually America wages war. We half-assed our post-war plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, have no long-term plan for Syria, and are currently engaged in a complicated geopolitical act in East Asia. For most Americans, war means the death of strangers, thereby devaluing its otherwise horrendous consequences and converting war into nothing more than a modern televised battle scene from Game of Thrones.

If you ever visit a memorial or battleground, I ask that you imagine your loved ones dying. I want you to picture them, alone, bleeding to death in some foreign land. No glory. No eulogy. No wreaths or neatly wrapped American flags. Just death. And if you’re unwilling to let your loved ones pay that price, then who are you to so eagerly ask others to do so on your jingoistic behalf?

Nathan L. Williams ’18, a current Army ROTC cadet, is a Government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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