Since yesterday's news and consequent blog, I have been thinking a great deal about the condition of our world and our human responses to its challenges. Last week I took a week of vacation in the state of Virginia, where I spent blessedly full days revisiting historical events of the past four centuries. Virginia, you may know, is really where it all began for what was to become the United States of America. In the late 1500s was the mysterious and ill-fated Roanoke settlement, but in 1604 it was Jamestown that set the mark for future exploration and expansion of what we know call the USA. So, I spent my time visiting colonial sites (like Jamestown and Yorktown, where more than a century later the Revolutionary War ended). I "spent time" with several presidents, including Woodrow Wilson (his birthplace and presidential library are in Staunton), Thomas Jefferson (his Monticello), James Monroe (Ash Lawn) and James Madison (Montpelier).
These were all fascinating visits, but perhaps my most intriguing day was spent in Lexington, Virginia, home of Civil War General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the burial site of Robert E. Lee, and the Virginia Military Institute.
In particular, as I have been pondering the issues of war and peace, I have thought back to my day in Lexington, Virginia. Serendipitously, I was in Lexington on the day of Virginia Military Institute's impressive "parade." Steeped in tradition, it was a moment for me to look into the eyes of some our country's best young men and women, most of whom will be engaged in military service following their graduation from VMI. I couldn't help but ask myself which of those I watched parading in military fashion before me would give their lives in military service. It was a moment for me to experience some sense of patriotism and gratitude for those who are doing what I have not done.
I suppose one of the lingering remembrances of my "military immersion" last week is how none of the historical figures I "spent time with" longed for war and its consequent devastation. "Stonewall" Jackson responded out of a sense of duty and desire to protect his native Virginia. Robert E. Lee, a gracious southern gentleman by all accounts, was reluctant to become engaged in the Civil War as a general, but responded to what he understood to be a grave situation.
And I was quite impressed with George C. Marshall, a military man (and a VMI graduate) from the beginning of his life. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 there was criticism from many corners that a "military man" is not an appropriate expression of the Nobel laureate. To these criticisms, he said this in his Nobel lecture:
There has been considerable comment over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a soldier. I am afraid this does not seem as remarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others. I know a great deal of the horrors and tragedies of war. Today, as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission, it is my duty to supervise the construction and maintenance of military cemeteries in many countries overseas, particularly in Western Europe. The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am deeply moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war. Almost daily I hear from the wives, or mothers, or families of the fallen. The tragedy of the aftermath is almost constantly before me.Although at heart I am a pacifist, I am also a realist. As a man of the cloth I have seen both the very best humanity has to offer and, on occasion, the very worst. What theologians call "sin" and philosophers call "the human predicament" is very much a part of the world in which we live. So while my heart yearns for peace, my mind haunts me that "war" (in whatever form it rears its ugly, hoary head) may always be with us.
Today I am humbled and grateful for those who have led through history not as war-mongers but as ones sensing a call as deep as my own to serve with dignity, honor and in behalf of those who, mercifully, never have to witness firsthand the hell that is war.