A Country to Die For
Memorial Day has never been my favorite. In Arlington, Virginia, where I grew up, it always meant the roar of Vietnam Vets on motorcycles all day. And the occasion can bring out our most jingoistic spirit. As I passed three separate suspension bridges across the Hudson River today, each with a giant American flag hanging from it, I couldn’t help but feel ambivalent. That flag has represented a lot of shame in recent years.
On this day, we celebrate the war dead while too rarely mourning the tragic wars that claimed their lives. We pass over in silence those they may have killed. Honoring the dead is surely a duty for the living, but it should not become the excuse to sanctify what killed them.
Today, though, turned out to be a reminder for me of a few simple reasons to love my country. I went with my friend Jake, soon to move West for medical school, on a bike trip along the Hudson.
We covered about 70 miles in all, from Bear Mountain—an hour north from the city—along the western shore to Poughkeepsie, then back down on the other side.
It is plain that ours is a land made to be traveled. When conditions permit (despite far too few roads safe for it), bicycling competes only with hitchhiking as the way to go. The pace is right for frequent stops and conversations with strangers, and the horrendous, strip mall-infested Interstate system is off-limits. One is required to take the best roads—the small ones. Plus, the exertion of biking is sufficient to compensate for all the junk food we Americans eat.
After going around the military academy at West Point (the through-road has generally been closed to traffic since 9/11 for security), we climbed to divine views of the river and its ancient bridges. The rail bridge at Poughkeepsie, we learned, was once the longest span on Earth. Soon, we found ourselves in quintessential towns, with folk-art holiday festivities, including a priceless one-vehicle parade in Newburgh.
After narrowly surviving the IBM, strip-malled nightmare of Poughkeepsie (with no shoulders on the bike route), it was on to the magnificent Dia:Beacon galleries, an island of young, artsy transplants enjoying works whose primary medium is scale—a thing as American as can be, of course.
All along the way, people helped us find the right roads and made themselves available for conversations. Finally, after Cold Spring and Garrison, it was down to the glorious bridge at Bear Mountain. Looking down from that height onto both sides of the river, thrilled with our accomplishment, the beauty of the scene brought back flashes of the human life we’d seen, self-rhapsodizing just as Whitman described, lives that amount not only to their own poetry, but their own forms of poetry altogether.
On the train ride back, I had a long conversation with two young women who both just finished their freshman year at West Point. One, in fact, is first in her class. Like many military people I meet, they were quite open-minded. We discussed torture, armed drones, “black sites,” the Iraq War, and just-war theory. They thought it a shame that the humanities—which might make more reflective cadets—are so poorly represented at their school. It was a shame to think that these kind souls might be brought to suffer or die for a cause and in a manner beneath their intrinsic dignity. One had a ready answer for that possibility. “What happens will be God’s will,” she said. Oh, God save us.
What could I say to that? After a day like this, how could I not say that I would die for this country, that its holiness might be preserved and its errors corrected? But, please, may my death—should it come to that—not come at the expense of another. For, as the song goes:
Other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
The train arrived in wondrous, horrid Midtown, of course. I walked my bike from Grand Central to 8th Avenue on 42nd Street. This gave me the chance to see Broadway closed off to traffic—beginning this weekend, a new pedestrian area is being built there. People mulled through the open street, seemingly not quite sure what to do. Like curious children or cats in a new environment. They took a lot of pictures, as people often do when not sure how else to experience a wonder. What a glorious thing. Though every muscle in my body ached, I got on my bike and zipped around a little, just to get the feel for it. And, naturally, I also took a few pictures.
A good Memorial Day to all of you. May there be no more war dead to mourn.
Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.