Halloween and All Saints Day are upon us which makes me think about how much I love cemeteries. When we travel I go out of my way to visit them and photograph the tombstones, the flowers, the landscape. I wonder: was the long life well lived? Was the short life well grieved? I like being reminded that I’ll be along at some point, so I mustn’t waste a moment. I come away inspired
The exception is war cemeteries. Once there I immediately feel depressed and hopeless. My throat gets tight and suddenly there is a hockey puck sitting in my stomach. I can’t take a deep breath.
When we were in Washington D.C., Wes wanted to see all the war memorials and Arlington cemetery. I said okay, but no to the Vietnam Memorial because I’d been there before and couldn’t stop crying. And I insisted that we walk all the way from Dupont Circle (about 4 miles) because I knew that would be the only redeeming thing for me. I was right.
At the World War I memorial, the World War II memorial, the Korean War memorial, the Lincoln memorial, the rippling pond at Bobby Kennedy’s grave, the eternal flame at the Kennedy grave and especially at all the military graves in Arlington, I cried.
I kept thinking, “What a waste.”
I know many say, “But we are free because of these dead!”
And I thought, “There has to be a better way. You want X, but I want X. If you are dead, then I can have X.” That’s basically it, right? Isn’t there a peaceful way to deal with that?
Sexism alert! I said to Wes, “The bottom line is that war is about young people dying because of arrogant, power hungry men.”
If women ruled the world would it be different? I doubt the majority of mothers enjoy sending their children off with the possibility not only of death, but of returning permanently damaged—not just their bodies, but also their spirits.
But what about fighting against oppression? Are we supposed to let evil dictators rule? Should we still have slavery? Genocide? Hunger?
Somewhere at Arlington cemetery there is a stone wall with a quote from Aeschylus and it was something about “look within and tame our own savage beast.”
So perhaps I am wrong. Maybe the bottom line is that war is about dealing with the dark, selfish, I-perceive-myself-separate side of humanity. The side that says, “I am better than you. I should get what I want. I will kill you to get it.”
This is the side that is within each one of us. And if you don’t think you have a dark side, I invite you to remember how you felt the last time someone cut you off in traffic or they made you check your carry-on and then put you in a middle seat; or a teacher yelled at your kid and made her cry.
I walked around Arlington thinking about the savage beast, the dark side within. I also thought about the Light within. I looked at those thousands of grave stones and wondered about the Light these men and women carried. What cure, what music, what art, what poetry, what invention, what idea did the world miss because they were gone too soon?
I overheard a tour guide talking about “all the heroes buried here.”
I’ll tell you who my real hero is. My hero is the one who can see a better way. My hero is the one who prevents the war before it can begin. My hero is the one who can tame the savage beast within.