Commentary: Playing 'Taps,' paying homage

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A military bugler plays "Taps" during a funeral ceremony in Arlington cemetery in February 2008.

By Ron Grossman

Just as we have on previous Memorial Days, my wife and I will play "Taps" Monday in a small-town cemetery.

Our habit began after we read an editorial about Americans losing sight of the holiday's meaning, thinking of it as the seasonal start of trips to picnic grounds and summer cottages. That idea wasn't new, but it was accompanied by a story about the dwindling ranks of buglers.

Now, there was a problem with which we could help out.

We play the harmonica, which can mimic a bugle's mournful sound. Piety, like charity, begins at home, so we thought we would play "Taps" in the Jewish section of a cemetery in La Porte, Ind., where we have a home. Its Jewish community has shrunk, so we figured that gravestones marked with a Star of David might not have visitors.

The sea of flags with which American Legion Post 83 marks veterans' graves makes an indelible point: Those who lie there didn't go off to war as Christians or Jews or whatever. They were just Americans who answered their country's call.

On that occasion and since, after a while, we put down the harmonicas and just pass silently along the rows of grave markers.

We can play "Taps" only a few times without messing it up. Musically, it's not complicated - just 24 notes. But each one is freighted with emotion. If either of us happens to glance at a gravestone with, say, a 1944 date of death, we'll never make it through to that last long, gently fading note without sobbing. 1944 - think of that. It means that a vet could have fallen during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Or perhaps he was killed during a World War II battle on some barely remembered South Pacific island.

Lately I've thought that in addition to paying our respects to the veterans buried in that cemetery, we should pause for a moment of silence at the town's high school and National Guard armory. Someone who is a student at the school or who drills in the armory might be killed in a war. For unless human nature changes suddenly and totally, there will be another war. And one after that.

Of all mankind's problems, it is the one we've not put so much as a dent in.

Cures have been found for once-epidemic diseases. We live much longer and infinitely more comfortably than our ancestors. Transplant surgeons give renewed life to those whose hearts or kidneys have failed. Medical advances save wounded soldiers who once would have died on a battlefield. But war, the cause of those wounds? Is there a scrap of evidence that we are close to - even within a reasonable distance of - finding a cure?

Absolutely not, to judge by the pattern of the past as it is inscribed on the tombstones of that Indiana cemetery. They witness recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, older ones in Vietnam and Korea, and still more distant ones like World Wars I and II and the Spanish-American War. The oldest tombstones are weather-worn. Maybe their illegible inscriptions commemorate those who served in the Civil War, conceivably even the War of 1812.

Mind you, those are the wars of a relatively young country. Older nations have longer lists.

Some wars were fought for noble purposes, like freeing Europe from Hitler's tyranny. Others had selfish motivations, like England and France's battles over which would get to make India a colony.

But all wars scar those who fought them, and the families of those who didn't come home.

It's not that men and women haven't yearned for an alternative. There is a Nobel Peace Prize. Theodore Roosevelt won for helping end a war between Russia and Japan. But most winners' achievements were more limited, suggesting the prize might be more modestly titled: For Small Steps Toward an Age-Old Dream.

In retrospect, the 1929 winner's citation sounds hopelessly naive: "For the Kellogg-Briand pact, whose signatories agreed to settle all conflicts by peaceful means and renounced war as an instrument of national policy."

Among those who signed on were Germany, Italy, and Japan, which went on to fight World War II against fellow signers like the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union. Yet, as the Bible says, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

So too are those who have fought for a just cause while forswearing recourse to violence. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

A few religious communities stand for resistance to violence even when confronted with violence. The Amish take to heart Jesus' injunction: "If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Yet unless the rest of us adopt their unbending pacifism, war will be with us on every Memorial Day. My wife and I plan to acknowledge that ultimately sad fact of life by pausing at an undeveloped section of the cemetery. Looking out over a grassy field that someday will be dotted with flags, one of us will say a few words:

"We might not be around to salute you, veterans yet to come, when you join your comrades already here. So, in advance, we thank you, some of whom will have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Yet we're profoundly sad that you will have had to serve, because our generation failed to free yours from the scourge of war - just as previous generations failed ours. Rest in peace."

Then we'll play "Taps," stretching that final note even longer, hopefully sending its echoes into the future.

Ron Grossman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. rgrossman@tribpub.com