Have you ever taken a photo, and, though you don’t know exactly why you took it, it ends up being one of those seared into your memory?
I have one. I was out wandering around during lunch one day, and over two months later it still stands out in my memory, even though I didn’t consciously think about it. I just snapped it, and every time it comes to mind or I look at it, I find myself affected. This is the one that won’t leave me alone:
I pick apart the image, itemizing everything it captures. The white-hot disc of the noonday sun overhead. Sun flare. A peaceful, brilliant blue sky with cottony clouds. The Old Courthouse rising in the background. A bronze soldier, his hand seemingly raised for a victorious charge into battle, though he stands on a pedestal bearing the names of those lost. If you look closely, the silhouette of a bird, caught mid-flight, appears on the largest cloud. There is darkness and light here, even in the brightest part of the day.
Plus, every time I see this image, this pops into my head:
“I am tired of living among people who hate peace. I search for peace; but when I speak of peace they want war.” — Psalm 120: 6-7, New Living Translation, 2nd Edition
I can’t explain it, not fully.
I think part of it is that, locally, there has been so much support for war, wars past and present. The benches near this memorial, any time and day of the week that it isn’t raining cats and dogs or snowing or covered in ice, are occupied by veterans sharing war stories. For the older veterans especially, joining the military was the quickest way to get out and see the world outside this small town. Many joined in peace time. In war and peace, recruiters glamorized it. As young men, most fresh out of high school, they felt they were setting out upon a grand adventure. Then the horrors they saw, the conditions those on the front lines lived in, changed their minds and made them wish they’d stayed home, safely tucked away in the belly of a mountain shoveling coal, though, paradoxically, they often say they are glad they were able to serve their country and keep their homes and families safe.
I know. I have eavesdropped on their stories, and I catch snatches of their conversations while going about my business.
Still, this place reveres war. It is how heroes are made. It is the U.S. defending (or rightfully avenging) itself, or bringing the glories of democracy to other nations. It is a show of strength. Many churches here preach the righteousness of the current War On Terror, and the necessity of continued disputes over Jerusalem and the West Bank. Those who are openly against war, or even strongly question it, are often excoriated as unpatriotic, as anti-American, as unsupportive of our hometown boys in the military, as exemplary of everything that’s wrong with “the Liberals,” as panty-waisted pacifists.
Meanwhile, all I can think about are the veterans’ war stories and the horrors contained in them, the tremendous loss of life, both from the battles themselves and, usually more slowly, from diseases linked to exposure to different chemical and biological agents used. I think of my uncle who served in a special ops unit in Vietnam, came back with PTSD. I think of the boys that were my classmates that were or are under fire, injured, disabled, that may come back in body bags as this generation’s war drags on. (None I knew have come back in a body bag yet, thank Heaven.) I think of the suffering war causes and I wonder why humanity is so resistant to peace, and why war is so revered.
This picture, I think, is representative of how I feel about this place: complicated, as though there is darkness even when the light’s the brightest.
I often wish I could sally forth as powerfully and sure of myself as the bronze soldier, though certainly without casualties in my wake.
As I said, this image won’t leave me alone, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand all it evokes for me, or why I snapped it in the first place.
If you’re of the mind to do so, I’d love to see the photo that haunts you and hear your stories about it. Drop me a link in the comments.