— Lee Greenwood
From, “God Bless The USA” (1984)
Of all the agony ever put into words over the casualties of war, the one that still rings in my ears as the most telling came ironically enough as the product of two Hollywood screenwriters.
Maybe Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus had some rare insight into raw emotion when they adapted a 1973 novel by Forrest Carter about one soldier’s quest to avenge the murders of his wife and son by a renegade band of pro-Union militia in post-Civil War Missouri.
Their 1976 American Western was called “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a film classic that was selected 20 years later for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Directed by and starring the legendary Clint Eastwood, one of the movie’s final lines cut the deepest — as spoken straight from the empty heart of a wayward and broken warrior whose pain seemed eternal.
Facing the scars of destiny at movie’s end, a bleeding but forgiving Wales told his bounty-hunting pursuer Captain Fletcher, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
Please excuse the expletive because deleting it would have meant surrendering the movie’s entire message.
It’s how Josey Wales felt. He was tired of death. He was tired of dying. He was tired of chasing both. This old soldier needed to accept what was lost. This weary gladiator needed to move on. Life awaited.
Quoting from a mythical Hollywood character seems wrong when pondering the meaning of Memorial Day. After all, this somber observance honors the memory of real soldiers — real men and real women who die in real wars; real families who feel real pain. All are the real casualties of real wars.
Yet, I still find myself returning to those words, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
No doubt, the Civil War was mercilessly real. Brother fought brother in a four-year bloodbath that split families, tested allegiances and ripped at the heart of a nation. Likely, the long and hurtful fight took its toll on thousands whose names might as well have been Josey Wales. All were soldiers. Many died. Some did not.
It is for the dead, and in a sad and tragic way for the dying, that we observe Memorial Day.
I’ve written about it before. I will write of it again ... and not just on Memorial Day or Veterans Day or Flag Day or Armed Forces Day, but on any day of a year’s vast in between when the memory of an American soldier plays upon my conscience.
Yes, Memorial Day is intended for the entombed, the buried ... those who did not return from distant battlefields. It is for the fallen heroes of war, those whose loss came to us like a dagger to the heart.
But I am also reminded of words from Argentine writer Jose Narosky. His is a sentiment of deepest pain yet truest understanding about the casualties of military conflict, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”
And that’s when visions of my father are most real.
Dad fought in World War II as an aircraft mechanic and soldier in the old Army Air Corps. Dad was a good man when he shipped overseas, joining hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers whose mission was to end the tyranny of a murderous dictator named Hitler and the grey-helmeted henchmen who adhered to his orders of genocide.
Dad was a good man when he left. Dad was a good man when he came back. But, Dad was a changed man.
I cannot speak to all the details. I know only what I learned secondhand and third-hand years later, and what I observed as his son, his third born.
Like many American soldiers returning from the great war, Dad chose not to speak of it; at least, not to us kids. Mom knew a little, but most of what she knew she did not share. Her silence came in respect for her troubled husband.
I never knew my dad before the war. I was not even born. That came a decade later. But even a child can pick up on key words, knowing mannerisms and awkward silence. Each was an unspoken code for off limits to open discussion.
We were occasionally reminded by Mom not to ask questions about “... that war.”
But this I know of my father’s time in World War II. He served somewhere in Northern Italy. Although his role came as a mechanic, I am told he was assigned a gun. I am told he may have been forced to use that gun. At war’s end he was reportedly aboard a ship sailing for Japan when the atomic bombs fell. He earned a couple medals although I don’t know what kind. Currently, I think they are in the safekeeping of my older brother.
I know very little else ... except this. Like too many noble American soldiers, Dad faced his demons upon his return to the States. Mom blamed most on the war. Perhaps one day I’ll write about them more openly. But that day is not today. I loved my father too dearly to disrespect his memory.
I don’t know if Dad ever saw that Clint Eastwood classic. If he had, I believe he might have found comfort in Josey Wales’ words. He might even have repeated them, minus the expletive if we kids were within hearing distance.
Truth is, a part of my dad did die in that war. A part of any soldier dies in war. It isn’t something you see. It’s what you feel.
It doesn’t make them bad men. It doesn’t make them damaged men. It just makes them changed men.
Memorial Day isn’t intended for these old soldiers. They lived. And if I were to be so bold as to question the fairness, my dad would have been the first to temper my tongue and calm my emotions.
“That’s enough, son,” Dad would caution me, his words gentle but his tone firm. “Those men who died ... they gave everything. They can no longer talk to their sons. They can no longer be with their families. They’re due every ounce of respect we can give them.”
But it doesn’t mean I can’t think of Dad on Monday. Because I will. And I will thank Josey Wales — real or not — for putting into words what so many just like him have earned the right to say.
“I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”