The Last True Story

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning comes from The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, a book by John Crawford which tells the story of his tour of duty in Iraq. I thought is was important for us to hear the words of an Iraq veteran this Memorial Day. This is from the end of the book:

It was raining the day I stepped off the plane and into a chilly Georgia morning. The line of soldiers, heads down, struggled underneath the weight of their gear across the tarmac and into the long, low building full of Red Cross coffee and doughnuts. Along the way a general stood shaking hands and exchanging salutes with returning soldiers. Next to him, a young lieutenant shivered as he held an umbrella out at arm’s length over the general. Neither had combat patches on their uniforms, and I splashed by without saluting or shaking hands.

The first time I had been at the airport, there had been banners and flags, family members waving fervently at the departing plane. This time the weather, I guess, had kept them home, and the gray sky was the only real witness to our return. Clouds or no, the “freedom bird” had landed and our war was over; we were home.

That night, in the same dilapidated World War II barracks that we had deployed from an eternity before, I didn’t sleep. I thought it was because of the Christmas-morning-like tremble in the air. In reality, I had become addicted to Valium in Baghdad and was going through withdrawal. Sitting alone on my bunk in the darkness, I felt a wave of nausea approaching. That sick feeling hasn’t entirely gone away yet….

While many in my platoon had relatively easy transitions, within days, I found myself kept from homelessness only by the hospitality of a friend with a sofa. It was like being at a party and going to the restroom for fifteen months and then trying to rejoin the conversation. Everyone and everything had changed without asking me first.

…to be continued…

The second reading this morning is a continuation of the first reading.

I took solace in becoming the kind of self-deprecating drunk who shows up at parties naked and wonders why everyone reacts the way they do. The sequence of events that followed culminated in my waking up on the dingy bathroom floor of an even dingier one-bedroom apartment devoid of furniture, except for a couch pulled from a Dumpster early one rainy morning before the garbage man could claim it. In that bathroom, fighting off sickness from the year’s excess, with my dog eyeing me and wondering if a coup d’état would be necessary to ensure his continued food supply, I did some soul-searching.

I didn’t find a whole lot. I don’t have nightmares, or see faces. When there is a flash outside my window at night I know it’s just lightning and not a flare or explosion. I can even drive without cringing at the slightest pile of rubble along the roadside in anticipation of an ear-rending explosion and shrapnel tearing through my flesh. I rarely get into fights with people who I imagine are “eyeballing me.” I actually adjusted quite well.

It certainly could have been worse. One of my buddies got locked up in an institution by the police for being a danger to himself. Another woke up in the hospital with no memory of the beating he received from police — not for being a danger to himself, but to everyone else. One guy got a brain infection and wakes up every morning expecting to be in Iraq. Two more are in Afghanistan, having re-upped rather than deal with being at home. Five more went back to Baghdad as private security guards. Their consensus on how it is a second time around: still hot and nasty….

War stories end when the battle is over or when the soldier comes home. In real life, there are no moments amid smoldering hilltops for tranquil introspection. When the war is over, you pick up your gear, walk down the hill and back into the world.


The readings this morning came from a book written by a John Crawford about what it was like for him to return from serving in the Iraq War. They paint a pretty bleak picture of what it’s like to be a returning veteran. But I’d like to add something else that Crawford says. Near the beginning of the book, he writes:

“As much as I feel like this book is the story of innocence not lost but stolen, of lies and blackness … I should also share a few words from my father, from a phone conversation we had about halfway through my time in Iraq. He said to me, ‘Son, of all the things I wanted to see you achieve, a combat infantry badge was the last. It is also the one I am most proud of you for.’”

This is Memorial Day weekend, and Memorial Day is an appropriate time to reflect on what our veterans go through; it is an appropriate time to remember that we should take pride in our American servicemen and servicewomen; it is an appropriate time to reflect on the moral issues that go along with war, moral issues that reflect, not on individual veterans, but on all of us who are part of American society.


On this Memorial Day in the year 2009, what is uppermost in our minds is the fact that the war in Iraq has been going on for more than five years now. When we are in the middle of such a war, a war that threatens to drag on for quite a while longer, it’s easy to forget the origins of Memorial Day.

Historian David Blight tells us that Memorial Day was first celebrated in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. The city of Charleston had been evacuated, and the only non-combatants remaining in the city were African Americans who could not get out. The Confederate Army had established a prison camp on the site of a race course. 257 Union soldiers died in that prison camp, and were dumped into a mass grave.

In April, 1865, the African American community of Charleston decided to create a proper gravesite for the Union dead buried in that mass grave. They disinterred the bodies, and reinterred them in individual graves, and African American carpenters built a fence around the new grave yard.

To officially open the new grave yard, the African American community organized a parade of some ten thousand people, including African American schoolchildren and ordinary African American citizens. White Americans were represented by some nearby Union regiments, and some white abolitionists. All these people gathered in the new graveyard. They listened to preachers, they sang songs like “America the Beautiful” and “John Brown’s Body” and old spirituals. And at last they settled down to picnics, and to watching the Union regiments marching about.

This was the first Memorial Day: a day to commemorate those who had died in the war, to honor those who had fought in the war, to reflect on the meaning of the Civil War, and to reflect on the end of the war. These are still the purposes of Memorial Day today: to commemorate those who died in war, to honor the veterans, to reflect on what wars mean for us, and to think about the end of the present war and the eventual end of all wars. That first Memorial Day was celebrated in that newly-built cemetery; and it is still a tradition in many families to go to the cemetery on Memorial Day, and tend to the graves of family members who have died.

I’d like to reflect on some of these points with you this morning. I’d like to begin by thinking about how we might best honor our veterans. I’d like to reflect on the meaning of war, particularly what the current war means for us. Finally, I’d like to commemorate those who have died in war.


1. How might we best honor our returning veterans? This is a question that the United States has struggled with again and again. Sometime we give our returning veterans parades and hero’s welcomes; just as often, we have seemingly forgotten our returning veterans. Or, as we heard in the readings this morning, the welcome given to returning veterans is not much of a welcome.

There’s an underlying problem here. When we send soldiers off to war, we have trained them to do a very specific task, which is to wage war. When soldiers return home again, we have to think about how to help them make that transition. It take months to train a soldier to go to war; we should expect that it might take months to train a soldier to stop being a soldier. It isn’t enough to greet a returning soldier with a salute and a handshake from a general without a combat badge. Nor can we try to make this the sole responsibility of the military; in a democratic society, it is the responsibility of all of us.

We all know that our democratic society has to take the responsibility for making sure all returning vets get integrated back into society. There are veterans who become non-functional, and we have to take care of them: either by helping them become functional once again; or if that is impossible, then we have to adequately care for them. When we hear that a disproportionate number of homeless people are veterans, we know that we have not done a good job of caring for our non-functional veterans.

Then there are the veterans who are basically functional, although they may need several months of transition time. For these men and women, society has to make sure that their transition goes smoothly. John Crawford’s transition did not go smoothly, and he says that at one point the only thing that kept him from homelessness was the kindness of a friend. This represents a failure by society — by us — to take care of returning veterans who will go on to lead fully functional lives.

And there are the veterans who made it through the war basically intact, and who have an easy transition back into civilian life. Even with these men and women, we can’t abdicate all responsibility. When these veterans come back to civilian life, they need society’s help — they need our help — as they reclaim old jobs or find new jobs. This may be a difficult task for us in the current economic climate.

I’d have to say that our society does not do a particularly good job at supporting returning veterans. We don’t necessarily do a bad job, but there’s no real enthusiasm for it. I think part of the problems is that less than one percent of the population is on active military duty during this current war; there are so few returning veterans as a percentage of the overall society that it is easy to forget them or ignore them. And so as a society we don’t make the effort to re-integrate returning veterans into society. In fact, the taxpayers demand that we don’t spend enough money on returning veterans: there is never enough money for the part of the military budget that deals with returning vets.

Morally, this is selfish and wrong. If we’re going to have a war, we have to clean up after that war. This means in part that we have to take care of returning soldiers. This has to be figured into the true costs of every war. The politicians must be forced to figure this cost in, and we as voters and taxpayers have to hold military and political leaders accountable to this.


2. Those are some thoughts about how we might honor returning veterans. Next I’d like to reflect for a moment on the meaning of war, particularly on the meaning of the current war.

One of the central aspects of war that we tend to ignore in our society is that every war requires some kind of atonement. Even a war that is completely justifiable on moral grounds would require atonement for the very simple reason that any war involves killing, and killing always requires atonement. Since war is a society-wide phenomenon, the killing that takes place during war must be atoned for by everyone in society. This is part of the purpose of Memorial Day, in my opinion. That very first Memorial Day was to remember the Civil War, which was fought for the morally justifiable purpose of ending slavery; nevertheless, even after the Civil War, those African American citizens of Charleston atoned for all the killing that went on by building a suitable cemetery for the war dead. This is one reason we visit graves and cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day.

Obviously, we visit graves and cemeteries and memorials to say goodbye to those who died in war. We have all seen those images of Vietnam veterans at the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, D.C., with tears in their eyes as they see the name of a friend who died in that war. This is one way we atone for the killing that goes on during war: we remember it, and we grieve over it. This is a very traditional part of Memorial Day, and this should continue.

But that is not enough. Somehow we have to atone for all the evils of war — not just the killing, but the waste, and the disruption, and the tears in the fabric of society, and the weakening of the moral fabric of society, all of which are results of war. And it is we, you and I, who have to do this, because the evils of war have been done in our name and for our sakes. Even if we didn’t agree with the war, even if we voted against the politicians who supported the war, even if we actively opposed the war (as I did), we do live in a democracy, and in a democracy we are all responsible for public policy.

So how can we atone for all the evils of war? — which, by the way, sounds like a pretty big job. Basically we atone for war by continuing to work towards making our society the kind of society in which war is no longer necessary. And since we live in a democracy, we will find different ways to do this work. Since so many wars are rooted in fights over resources, some of us might find ways for us to use fewer resources as a society. Since so many wars are rooted in hatred of Otherness, some of us might work to increase understanding across religious, ethnic, racial, and other boundaries. In this congregation, many of us are artists of one kind or another, and the artists among us might make paintings and poems and sculptures and plays and music that leads us towards a future that does not require war. I’m a minister, and one of the things I try to do is to popularize the teachings of Jesus and of Buddha, both of whom taught that violence is unnecessary. In short, reducing the likelihood that we will wage war in the future is the best way to atone for waging war in the present.

There is one kind of atonement that all of us should do; we should all grieve the loss of life. In the case of the Iraq War, we should especially grieve the loss of our own American servicemen and servicewomen, because they are closest to us; but we should also grieve all loss of life that occurs during this war, for we are in some sense responsible for it. We Americans don’t like the thought that maybe we should feel a little guilt, but we have to feel at least a little guilty that we’re alive while other people died in a war fought by our country. This is another purpose of Memorial Day: to grieve the deaths of all those who die in the course of war.


3. And perhaps the best way to grieve is to commemorate those who have died. The way we do this is to remember all the people who have died, in all the military actions our country as gotten involved in. That means remembering even the small military actions that resulted in loss of life. That makes a fairly substantial list. In my lifetime alone, I remember the war that spread from Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos; the Cold War; the invasion of Grenada; the military action in Panama; the Persian Gulf War; the military action in Somalia; the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head; I’m sure there were some that I’ve forgotten.

When we start remembering all the military actions America has been involved in, we are doing two things. First, it helps us to remember that lots of low-level American servicemen and servicewomen have died in the service of this country; and that reminds us that there are plenty of returned veterans, American servicemen and servicewomen who didn’t die, to whom we owe ongoing support. Second, remembering this long list of military actions by our country makes us reflect on the morality of our use of military force. From a moral point of view, this long list makes me think that maybe we could have gotten away with fewer wars. Maybe we could devoted more of our resources, and more of our attention, to humanitarian aid, to supporting United Nations peacekeeping missions, and so on. Helping other nations in peaceful ways is morally better than being involved in war.

I’d like to end by reflecting on the possibility that we could someday end war. At this point in history, we may not have a choice: we can no longer afford to carry on long, drawn-out wars. We are going to have a hard enough time paying the cost of re-integrating so many returning veterans, and providing them with sufficient services to make sure they have the support they deserve. The current war, a horrendously expensive war, is dragging down our economy by putting our country further into debt, which makes it less attractive to buy Treasury bonds. We are going to be paying the price of this war for years to come through our taxes, and I don’t see how we are going to be able to afford another war any time soon. That’s the price we pay in money, but there’s another price we pay, and that’s the moral price.

In our culture, it’s not very popular to say this. Americans like to think that we are always in the right, which means that there is no moral price to anything. So now I get to be the cranky preacher who says: sorry, but there is a moral price. If we don’t find ways to atone for the killing that has been going on in our names, then we will pay the moral price for this war in guilt and shame, and guilt and shame take a long time to finally do away with. Perhaps it is impossible to end all war; human beings are by no means perfect beings, and we are going to continue to get ourselves into situations where we have to go to war. But war has become a luxury that we can no longer afford to indulge so frequently. We need to continue to work towards making our society less dependent on waging war. Since our current war is, at root, a fight over oil resources, some of us will find ways for us to use fewer resources as a society. Since many wars are rooted in hatred of Otherness, some of us will work to increase understanding across religious, ethnic, racial, and other boundaries. The artists among us will make paintings and poems and sculptures and plays and music that leads us towards less dependence on war.

So on this Memorial Day, we will look forward to reducing our society’s reliance on war. And we will also do all the things that those citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, did on the very first Memorial Day. We will have parades. We will commemorate the dead. Some of us will go to tend graves. Some of us will have picnics. We will all pause for at least a moment to remember Memorial Day, and then pause for another moment to look forward to the day when we will reduce our reliance on war — or even end war altogether.