Monday, May 26, 2008

in memoriam

"in flander's fields, the poppies grow... "

i can hear my parents' voices, one overlain upon the other, reciting those lines to me and my brother. my parents - both of them - read poems to us from an anthology that included the works of poets who ranged from chaucer and shakespeare, to donne and marvel, to ae houseman, blake, yeats, poe, kipling, kilmer and hughes.

i had no idea what the poem meant of course, but we called my great grandfather "poppy" and so the word hooked in my mind. i remember my father and mother trying to explain that it wasn't rows of old men growing in those faraway fields, but flowers. i think they left out the part about the tombstones.

i figured that part out myself when i was a freshman in high school and encountered a similiar poem in the same vein. this time i was studying latin and was able to translate the final line - dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, as "it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."

but in the poem, that line is called "the old lie."

according to my father, my irish grandmother's family, the moylans, arrived in the mid 18th century - early enough in the life of the young country to establish themselves as gentleman farmers and merchants by the time of the revolution, and i may count general stephen moylan, who endured the winter at valley forge with washington, as one of my grandfathers.

i am not yet so much a pacifist that i dont believe that there are causes worth fighting for. my uncles and great uncles - on both sides of my family - all served in world war two. but i do not believe that i disgrace their memories or their acheivements to say that i am proud that not a drop of any blood directly linked to mine has been spilled in either viet nam or this ongoing disgrace in iraq.

i bought a poppy yesterday, from a veteran - a man old enough to my great-uncle. i said thank you as i stuffed my dollar in his box. it occured to me that the poppy is the opium flower... and in the image of the red poppies, the white crosses, i saw an interesting juxtaposition of dreams and death and sleep and illusion i hadn't seen before.

i think it is a lie that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. countries are artifical things, carved up men or accident of geography, recognized only by our self-created conventions of culture and time. the struggle of an individual or a group of individuals against tyranny, on the other hand, is a struggle that transcends cultures and conventions, and carries across time.

when the individual sacrifices his life for a universal cause - something that benefits the good of all beings - his life is not given in vain. but when individuals are deluded and seduced into giving their lives for something made up only by men... like a country... a revolution is called for.

and furthermore, the war must end. blessed be.

No comments: