Sunday, November 13, 2011

Veterans' Day: unfinished business

Three men on 11/11/11 As a child, I didn’t ask why my Uncle Herman’s index finger didn’t bend. Nonetheless, it bothered me although it didn’t seem to matter much to him.  Then I was unfamiliar with the human cost of war. That would come later during the Vietnam conflict, about the time I learned that my Uncle had suffered his injury while working under cover in the Army intelligence corp in France during WW II.
Gradually, I developed a functional understanding about enemies of good people, about a desire to control others that was unacceptable. Indeed, I was only able to justify the use of force by peace loving people when I saw that, all too often, preserving peace was impossible without meeting an enemy that way. Along with that, I realized that appeasing our most ardent enemies was impossible.
That’s why, this Veterans’ Day, I showed my class Grapes of Wrath, the 1940 movie, starring Henry Fonda, based on Steinbeck’s novel. I wanted my students to gain a perspective about our country and what it stands for, especially in adverse times.
Before they viewed the movie, I had them write about their worst days, their hardest, most demanding time. Then I started the DVD. It began with Fonda coming home after serving four years in prison. What he found was a Shakespearian scene, the family home abandoned, the community’s minister a vagrant who had lost his faith. 
People who would have seen the movie when it was first aired might have been vaguely aware of the war Hitler had started in 1939. Like my students, there were probably many who watched the premier of Grapes of Wrath who had not known war; in my class, I had only one veteran, a former Marine who was absent that day.
“Earlier this semester,” I said at the beginning of class, “we discussed three men we would watch this semester. Two were soldiers. One, Gilad Shalit, had been kidnapped by Hamas and was held captive for five years. Recently, he was freed in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners.”
I told my students about one of the released Palestinians, a women who had failed to carry out her mission as a suicide bomber. Once free, she had said she would try again, would try four times if that were possible. Her preferred target? An Israeli hospital like the one that had treated her after she’d been captured.
Many in the class grimaced. I reminded them that she was typical of those Islamic warriors who believed that the Koran instructed them to kill infidels to serve allah. “If they were killed in that effort,” I reminded them, “according to Sura 9:111, they are told they will go directly to paradise.”
We’d discussed that insidious behavior earlier in the semester when I introduced them to First Lt. Michael Behenna. On the screen in front of the class, I projected a picture of the message I’d received from Michael’s parents that morning from their website 
“He’s another man we’ve been following this semester. He’s about to appeal to a civilian court to end his imprisonment. He’s served two years of a fifteen year sentence for killing  an Islamic militant who had killed two men in his platoon.”
Behenna had lost an earlier appeal to a military court. After attending that hearing, I had spoken to Michael’s parents, had told them that the dead terrorist had wanted to be killed, had told them why.  They were shocked, surprised they had missed that connection. Indeed, it seemed to them that the terrorist had wanted to provoke Behenna, had intended to be killed while doing it.
I read from the parents’ message. “They ask for your your prayers, for Michael,” I said. “Barring an unlikely Presidential pardon, this is his final appeal.”
That seemed a fitting way to engage my students on Veterans’ Day. Although I also mentioned Jonathan Pollard and our President’s deaf ear to numerous pleas for his release after Pollard has served more than 26 years for a crime that usually carries no more than four, I didn’t dwell on that. Instead, I pressed play on Grapes of Wrath.
As we watched parts of that Depression era story, I wondered how many displaced Americans in the 1930’s had become soldiers in World War II to escape impoverishment. Joining the war was preferable to starvation, but also was necessary to stop the evil enemy of millions of good people.
With his permanently pointed finger, my uncle probably would have indicated he emphatically agreed.
                                       B. Koplen 11/12/11
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