"I'm sorry I must leave, but I must do what is asked of me by my God, my Country, and my Corps.. and so, the war blog begins, again." ~B

22 May 2011

The Blood Stripe

The Blood Stripe:

The month of May marks the return of the sun, warm weather, and pops of color as plants and flowers embrace spring.  It also brings with it a time to remember.  If you are connected in any way to the military you  have a list of names to remember.  They are friends, battle buddies, mentors, and leaders who left for war and did not return. They are brothers, sisters, cousins, moms, dads, and best friends.  As we enjoy the sunshine and make our Memorial Day plans this month, may we pause to remember those families who will honor not just the fallen, but their fallen loved ones.

Outside my workplace there is an American flag that rises high above the parking lot.  I see it everyday, multiple times a day.  A recent storm made the wind blow it out to it's full length and I was struck by the colors that stood out boldly from the muted grays in the clouds. 

The sight provoked this question: What do you see when you look at the flag?  We see it every day. Salute it at ball games.  Cheer on the stars and stripes in international sporting events.  It graces everything from our municipal vehicles to various clothing and novelty items.  It is a complex symbol which simultaneously provokes love and hate, hope and oppression.

But what do you see when you look at the flag?  There are 50 white stars representing the states, and symbolizing heaven, 13 stripes for the original colonies that rebelled against British rule and founded the nation and which are symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.  There are colors: blue, signifying vigilance, perseverance & justice; white, signifying purity and innocence; and red signifying hardiness and valor.

The boldness of the red stripes grab me.  Stripes that proclaim hardiness and valor.  Red stripes carry additional lore within military culture, particularly within the Marine Corps.  There is a similar red stripe that runs down the trouser legs on the dress blue uniforms of NCOs, SNCOs, and officers.  This stripe is commonly referred to as the "blood stripe" and serves as a reminder of the blood that has been spilled and honors the memory of fallen comrades.

Red for the blood of those who die to keep our nation free.  Blood stripe.  Red stripes on the flag that covers our war dead.  Our wars are anesthetized now.  We don't see the pools of blood under a young man who has just had his legs ripped off by an RPG.  We don't see the shoulder patch-- muted battle flag leaning forward into battle, soaked with the blood of a young woman who has just been peppered with fragments of metal and bone by a bomber willing to use even his own body as a weapon.  We are shielded from the pink mist, the human detritus that stripped of it's niceties is the sacrifice of war.  But it is up there with us every day in the red stripes that drip down the flag.

I am reminded of a John Ciardi poem.  In "A Box Comes Home" he writes, "I remember the United States of America/ As a flag-draped box with Arthur in it/ And six Marines to bear it on their shoulders."

When I look at the flag hanging vertically off a wall in my bedroom, I see names and faces blurred inside the crimson.  Gunnar is there with his duct tape and fast car.  Will is there too, probably making a bet on something. Jonathan has on a lazy grin.  Liz's Sergeant is there next to Sam, Kim, and Jess.  Chris is in there playing Little League.  Jon is there rubbing the pregnant belly of his wife before loading the bus that took him away forever.  It is their blood that has stained red the flags imprinted on our Old Navy tshirts and that fly outside our windows and line our pews.

It is their sacrifice, the blood of "patriots who proved in liberating strife that our flag was still there."

When the little flags are flying this month over graves long since neglected and over the fresh graves of a new generation's war dead pay attention to the red stripes.  Look at the names on the graves and imagine the people they were.  Imagine the stories they could tell you.  Remember the fallen were people once, not an academic abstraction, a dry statistic, a tally on a journalist's score sheet, or a tool to be used in political debate.  Remember what the flags signify-a ideal, a country, an oath, a soldier.

Remember, as Robert Leckie wrote, "It is to sacrifice that men go to war.  They do not go to kill, they go to be killed; to risk their flesh, to insert their precious persons in the path of destruction."  Remember those who will be absent from their families' picnics on Memorial Day, because sacrifice whispered to them "Not the blood of your brother, my friend-your blood."

Hopes and dreams stopped mid act.  An empty bedroom.  A picture instead of a father.   A mother's arms embracing a folded flag where a daughter used to be.

John Ciardi said this about the loss of his friend, "I would pray/ An agreement with the United States of America/ To equal Arthur's living as it equals his dying../

Or, to quote a pop-culture source, a dying Captain Miller says to Private Ryan in Spielberg's film "Saving Private Ryan,"  "Earn this James...Earn this."

What can we do to honor those we have loved and lost?  On whatever path God has placed you on, live your life in a manner worthy of their sacrifice.  Vote.  Serve others.  Send a care package.  Hug a soldier.  And whatever you do, take a moment this May to remember.

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