Thursday, July 26, 2007

My birthday card to Ken Ballard

As imagined in my head Saturday while at his grave in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Dear Ken,

Happy thirtieth.

You may or not remember me, seeing as how we never met when you were around. You might recognize me, though. I am the stranger who brought his cousins to see your grave last August. I am the guy who stood shyly to the side on Memorial Day while your family toasted you on the third anniversary of your death. I hope it's not weird for me to be here, but since your family couldn't be, I felt like I should.

Your family, as I'm sure you know, is again gathering at Cuesta Park today to celebrate you. I know your mother talks to you all the time, but it's my duty to let you know that she loves you very much. She's doing important work, you know, making sure that neither your town nor your country have forgotten you. I'm sure you'd be very proud of her.

I see that you have more company than the last time I was here, less than two months ago. Every time I've seen you, you've been surrounded by fresh graves. I'm sure next time I'm make the land behind me will be filled with more graves, mainly of people younger, poorer and less educated than I am.

I have to be honest: I have mixed feelings about this place. Whoever dubbed it our nation's most sacred shrine got it mostly right. John and Bobby Kennedy are buried here, immortalized by the soaring hopefulness of their speeches carved into the walls nearby. The memorial to the crew of the Challenger makes me cry the same way I did when I learned about it when I was 6. And the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, despite the throngs of tourists in obnoxious shirts, still represents the ideal that we aspire to honor all of those who gave their lives for our principles.

But despite all this, this place seems like it's ultimately a monument to the stupidity of war. It has been that way from the moment the Union Army commandeered the grounds around Robert E. Lee's mansion to bury its dead and remind Lee of what he had started. Half a million Americans died standing in lines across from each other and shooting rifles at their countrymen, over what was a political and economic dispute made ever deadlier by the pride of Virginia's generals. Many of them are buried here. Veterans of the Indian Wars, through which our nation's leaders stole a continent and nearly wiped out the remnants of a civilization, are here as well. The mast of the U.S.S. Maine, a symbol of yellow journalism and American imperialism profitting from tragedy, is preserved here. Even the graves of the Kennedys are reminders that some idiots thought they were justified in killing them.

It's true that every man thinks of less of himself for having been a soldier, and I am no different. I am humbled in the presence of you and all those who were not too afraid to have to trust my life to this nation, as part of a bargain that it would only be risked when it was necessary to defend the highest principles of this country. I wish only that we had upheld our end of the deal.

Instead, we continue to be mired in an endless war in which patriotism means slapping a flag decal on your car and going to the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier in a tank top that says "Exercise Freedom: I'd travel 8,000 miles to smoke a camel" while graves pile up.

I know I have failed to do my part as well. Even with a teammate of mine and a friend's little brother both killed in Iraq, I have made no effort to put a stop to this. I have not tried to get into a position where I could fix the mistakes we have made, nor have I organized in opposition to those that we continue to make. Instead, I have contented myself to visit Arlington and periodically vent my political beliefs to no one in particular.

I am coming here to ask you for your forgiveness. I'd tell you to rest in peace but I'm sure it must be difficult. So I will just say that we owe you better than this, and let's hope we remember before too late.

With respect,


1 comment:

Amanda said...

Thank you... too many great people have passed in recent years.

Happy Birthday Ken.