I spent my summers as a boy on a farm in a Welsh valley. It was a different time; time moved more slowly and when you are a kid there is time for everything.
One of my duties was to go into the village to buy groceries. I would get what was needed at the shop — we only had one — and then pedal and push my way back up the mountain. Beside the road leading up to the valley was a war memorial. It has a cast iron fence around it. I never saw anyone inside the fence, though I suspect that on Armistice Day, November 11, there would be a solemn observance.
One day I stopped to take a closer look and the simple granite cross spelled out the cost of war. There was not a farm up either valley that had not contributed a son or a father’s life in the service of the country. Perhaps thirty names on a memorial in a village of perhaps two hundred. That’s like a memorial with the names of 200 men from Havana. World War I was slaughter on the grand scale, bloodshed on the epic scale of the US Civil War. The price of war came home if not to your hearth, to your neighbor’s.
Our family escaped that price in World War II somehow. My father skippered a boat that made the dangerous run across the North Sea to Murmansk, convoying merchant ships, racing to depth-charge marauding U-boats, sailing in such bitterly cold weather that all hands had to chip the ice off the superstructure for fear the boat would capsize. On D-Day he took his boat in close to the beaches, spraying heavy machine gun fire to cover the troops going ashore. But to avoid his boat being hit, he had to go flat out, about 30 knots, and that meant the boat ran over wounded men in the water. Those were his orders; it haunted my Dad until he died.
My uncle has a DSO and a DFC put away in a drawer somewhere. This man is an honest-to-God hero who has waged peace with the same energy with which he waged war. He lost four planes, crash-landing every one of them, including a Flying Fortress he landed alone after his crew bailed out. He is a modest man; to meet him you would never know he was this year’s recipient of the Guernica Peace Prize, or that he’s an expert on the Red Squirrel, or that his work breeding sheep is respected in North Wales. I asked him about it, how he found the courage to do what he did.
“Well, he said, “it had to be done, didn’t it? We couldn’t let that bugger Hitler win.”
This Memorial Day we honor those who gave all for us. The price is great and it deserves to be remembered. We also need to realize that when this country commits its troops it commits men and women who may not come home, who may be terribly wounded protecting our interests. It is easy to talk about the US drawing lines in the sand, easy to talk about getting tough with this or that international miscreant; and so long as it’s not your son, your daughter, it’s not hard.