When my Dad’s regiment set out for war they were 5,000 young men eager to get to the enemy. They were all captured by the Japanese in the surrender of Singapore and enslaved. Barely 500 survived. As far as I know, no memorial to these men exists, their graves lost in the jungles of Burma, beside the railway they were forced to build, their simple bamboo markers long since rotted away. Dad, who was good with his hands, made many of the markers and carved officers’ names and numbers on them in the hope these Burma Railway cemeteries would be found. On his last trip abroad, before dementia slowed him down to a crawl, he and his POW camp friend Robert went to Burma at the behest of the War Graves Commission to see if they recognized a cemetery that had just been found. Alas, it all looked just like jungle. Dad and his best friend were the last two regimental survivors when they died a few years ago. Both were 80.
As a teenager, when we lived for a few years in Libya, Dad took me to several World War II cemeteries near Tobruk, scene of some fierce battles between the Allies and the Axis. In those fields no poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row, that mark their place, just desert sand blowing along the avenues of the dead.
A few days ago, in Boston, I stood in front of a more temporary memorial in Copley Plaza. The personal tributes to those who perished or were injured on April 15 this year, during the running of the Boston Marathon, were touching. By leaving a flag inscribed with a remembrance, or a stuffed animal, or flowers, or sneakers, those who remain are trying to offer comfort where perhaps none can be given. Certainly the lives of the families of Krystle Marie Campbell, 29, Lϋ Lingzi, 23, Martin William Richard, 8, killed in the bombings or MIT police officer Sean Collier, 27, killed three days later, will ever be the same again. I look at the crosses adorned with their images, messages and mementoes. I walk around and try to find some meaning in the wall of running shoes from marathoners, offering solace to the other 264 who were injured, 16 severely and three very severely. The lump in my throat becomes tears coursing silently down my cheeks. I’m sure others feel as helpless and outraged as I do.
The moment was made more poignant by someone playing Amazing Grace on a harmonica, until I turned round and saw it was an obese man in a wheelchair, with a sign asking for change for a disabled war veteran. Perhaps he was genuine, but his begging bucket cheapened the moment for me.
It is the spontaneous outpouring of support and grief epitomised by the temporary Boston Marathon memorial which touch a chord, rather than the ponderous official statues of the fallen standing in heroic positions, so beloved of fundraisers and politicians. I was heartened to see that the finish line for the marathon has been quietly painted in and I hope it stays there forever.
In Washington, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall inspires similar emotions with its quiet dignity. Walking down one ramp and up the other, considering the 58,195 names of fallen service men and women inscribed in the black marble, and watching the faces of those seeking the name of a relative, or stuffing a flag or a flower into a crack, I am again overcome with sorrow at the sheer waste and stupidity of the American nation’s loss.
In New York, at the site of the World Trade Centre bombing and shortly after the site was finally cleared, I look for a friend’s son’s name inscribed on the temporary memorial, the only person I actually have a link to in any of these tributes. As I stare at his name, my sense of his father’s personal loss is overwhelming, and yet there are names stretching out to the left and the right into the distance, and I feel their absence too. My eyes merely leak. It’s not crying, for as we know, there’s no crying in baseball, or life, for us guys. It’s just sadness, yes, and anger too, at the waste of lives young and old. And frustration that the perpetrators of this grief cannot be brought to any justice that will help us heal.
I suppose there will always be a foe and we will continue to send young people into battle to fight them. Misguided fanatics now bring the foe to us and more will die. As poet Lawrence Binyon wrote long ago: They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: / age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning, / we will remember them.
Or that other great WW I poet, Dr. John McCrae: Take up the quarrel with the foe / to you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break the faith with us who die / we shall not sleep, though poppies grow / in Flanders fields.
We’ll carry on as best we can; messy, slipshod, imperfect humans that we are, and try to keep the memory alive of those who have left us too early.