25 May 2009

Memorial Day...

the official start of summer activities; the first BBQ on the patio for the season; the beginning of travel season.

more important, the remembrance of all the women and men, living and dead, who served to protect us over the decades.

my father and my uncles served in WWII; my cousin served in Korea; many of my friends served in Vietnam and some of them are still there.

i've been surrounded by wars my entire life. i am, however, a pacifist - totally. i do not even believe that a government has the right to take a human life.

yet, i do understand that there are times when people and nations have to defend themselves. there are others in the world who do not believe in the concept of peace; there are groups who believe that to get what they want they must resort to violence and murder; and there are zealots who are convinced that their way is the only way to do things.

but, i strive, at least for myself, to push for the humanity of the world.

yesterday afternoon, i saw what i can only describe as the most haunting and believable argument against war - the opera Owen Wingrave by Benjamin Britten. commissioned by the BBC, it was first performed in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam Conflict. an irony that did not escape notice.

the story is about a young British aristocrat whose family was military backbone of Great Britain. after much thought, Owen comes to believe that war and violence has to stop, or at least the glorification of it. his family is distraught, not because of his stand but because of the disgrace it brings to them. his grandfather, Sir Phillip, disinherits him, his betrothed rejects him, his aunt repels him. Owen stays resolute.

he is branded a coward; he denies he lacks courage. his mentor and teacher of war tactics, Mr. Coyle, comes to realize he has more courage than most others and is torn.

of course, Owen dies at the end, but not how you would think. the original short story by Henry James and the opera are also a ghost story. the ghosts are woven in because they are Owen's ancestors.

it may seem ironic to talk about someone opposed to war as a way of honoring Memorial Day, but there are different kinds of heroes. one of Owen's lines in the opera is most prophetic and is actually by one of England's greatest war heroes: The Duke of Wellington
"Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained."
the opera also points out the irony that wars are fought to gain peace, a fact not lost on the character of Owen.

in the end, we must remember those who have served us. it is a dichotomy that is inescapable in the world.

Benjamin Britten also wrote a piece that was both a tribute to those who had fought and died in WWII and also something that remembered the horror of war and conflict. his War Requiem is one of the greatest musical compositions of the 20th century. i include below the last part of the Libera me what Britten called "Let us sleep now" in dedication to all those who served us.

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