Tom Matlack wrestles with the meaning of Memorial Day for a guy raised by Quakers.
Photo—Michael Kamber. A mother searches for her son, missing since he was taken into taken into custody by U.S. troops months earlier. Taken outside Abu Ghraib prison, May 2004.
I was raised by Quaker pacifists. My mom’s parents were actually Presbyterian missionaries in China before returning to the U.S. and finding Quakerism. So my mom’s brother fought in World War II and for a few days was missing in action during the Battle of the Bulge.
But on my dad’s family the Quaker pacifism goes back 10 generations in this country and an unknown number before that in England. The scoundrel of the Matlack clan is Timothy, the scribe of the Declaration of Independence who was thrown out of the Quaker church for drinking, bad debts, bear baiting, cock fighting, and for volunteering to fight in the Revolutionary War.
My dad was an English professor at Cornel during the Vietnam War years. I was only a toddler than but I remember when he sent his draft card back to Selective Service, risking two years of prison. I remember the renegade priest Daniel Berrigan, one of the FBI’s most wanted men at the time, hanging around our house on South Hill in Ithaca. And a few years later, once we have moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, getting arrested with my dad who led protests at the gates of Westover Air Force Base. Unfortunately the judge would not allow me the chance to follow through with my act of civil disobedience since he thought I was too young to enter an official plea.
I went on to become a venture capitalist while dad spent his post-academia career working for the American Friends Service Committee, promoting peace and justice around the world and also in Washington.
I’m not sure I am a pacifist, but I am sure my parents still are. So a natural question is what to think of on Memorial Day if you don’t believe in war?
As for Memorial Day itself my recollections are hazy at best. This isn’t surprising as holidays have never been my thing. In part it’s probably the Quaker in me. Quakers definitely downplay the importance of holidays over day-in-day-out connection with the “Inner Light” in each of us, meaning the God within. It’s also probably because my birthday is December 16th so I always got screwed as a kid when it came to Christmas. Finally, as a divorced father of two kids who generally spent holidays with their mom I had to come to terms with the fact that every day is pretty much like the next one unless you buy into some Wal-Mart version of reality.
That said there are a few memories of Memorial Day that stick out.
Just after college—when I was working in New York City drinking too much and causing all kinds of trouble—I took the bus with a friend to his parent’s house in Chatham on the Cape. My friend’s dad was there and played jingles for various brands he was working on. He was the original Don Draper, the creative director at J. Walter Thompson responsible for memorable campaigns for McDonald’s, Coke, and the Marines.
Another contemporary of my friend and I at the house was a relative of Thomas Eagleton, who had famously been pulled from the Democratic ticket in 1972 for his history of depression. I didn’t figure out who Eagleton even was, or my own struggles with depression, until much later.
All I remember is going to a barn where they played country music with my buddy and the young Eagleton to drink way too much beer. Going for a long run on the Cape toe path in glorious spring weather. Playing horseshoes with the real Don Draper. And flashing my buddies in what I thought was a fraternity style prank but I later realized was amazingly naïve (unbeknownst to me, since my friend had a serious girlfriend, my other two companions were actually gay lovers).
A decade later I would find myself on the Cape again for Memorial Day. This time it was to care for my two baby children while their mother, my soon-to-be-ex-wife, took off. She had rented a house in Wellfleet between selling the house we had built together and lived in for less than a year in Barrington, Rhode Island and rehabbing her post-divorce brownstone in Boston. I was all of 32. I immediately became local as my life line were meetings in church basements where I was trying desperately to stay sober. My buddies became the fishermen, construction workers, and year-round gays in Provincetown. I got to see the resentment in everyone’s eyes as tourists invaded the beauty the Outer Cape. And their cynicism with which they commented, “Yeah, but they won’t be back till July 4th.”
Last Memorial Day I was playing one-on-one basketball with my son on an outdoor court across from the Little Compton, Rhode Island town common. Honestly, I didn’t remember it was Memorial Day until I saw a bunch of plastic chairs, ancient men in uniform, and American flags. My primary objective was beating Seamus, a lumbering 15 year-old at the time with a devastating jump hook. I ended up bent over, humiliated, while listening to the Star Spangled Banner being played across the street. I honestly thought perhaps Memorial Day was appropriate for the beating I had just taken.
But none of these memories gets at the pacifist view of the remembrance of war. I actually think pacifists think about war more than the average human being, kind of like Mormons in Utah and Born Again Christians in the deep south have a much higher usage rate when it comes to porn. The thing you abhor fascinates you.
My dad has always been a Civil War buff. As soon I was old enough to vaguely understand it, he read Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels” aloud to me. I stared at the troop maps of Gettysburg and wondered how in the world a professor from Bowdoin College, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, defended Little Round Top at all odds and changing forever the history of our country, and very likely the world.
I found my dad’s passion for war trivia passed directly down to me. A sort of men at their very worst and best introspection that I couldn’t look away from. The opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan became an obsession with me as did The Band of Brothers.
It’s no accident that I have always tried to keep in touch with my friends who went into the military. A buddy was in the 82nd Airborne at the front of the first Iraq War. We exchanged frequent communications throughout his ordeal.
In the last few years my lens for war has been Michael Kamber, the NYT photojournalist. Michael’s whole goal in life has been to shoot the truth of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His view is that the world needs to see what is going on, raw and unfiltered.
This fit perfectly with my pacifist’s obsession with war. I didn’t like the wars when they got started nor when they dragged on for a decade. But I couldn’t turn my eyes away from them. I wanted to know the gory details of exactly what was going on behind the news reports and the less controversial of Kamber’s photographs which graced the front page of the Times.
Michael was always willing to email me back from the ground when I happened upon a story I didn’t understand, or a rumor that involved US misbehavior in some way. He generally took the side of the troops and was highly critical of the politicians who had sent them all there. He often told me that sending an 18 year-old from mid America, who enlisted to have a job, to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis or the Afghans was an impossible mission. It was carried out with bravery and with conviction, but no amount of American heart could take a kid who had very been out of Iowa or Michigan and make him capable of rebuilding a country from the ground up.
Michael reported many horrific stories and shot pictures that captured the intense physical and emotional pain of the combatants. But it was the death of his best friend, Tim Hetherington, which hit him the hardest, and therefore me too.
In a way it seemed to be the end of the addiction for him. He often described his need to cover wars to be a deep-seated affliction that couldn’t shake no matter how hard he tried. The adrenaline of being on the front lines, of nearly dying, and of seeing men killing each other right before his eyes was both awful and intoxicating.
My son, a 16 year-old sophomore in high school, has his heart set on attending West Point. I don’t know where the idea came from but he has researched it exhaustively, talking to many graduates and reading every book he can get his hands on. He is a young man of amazing faith and focus on service. I admire him greatly well beyond what I owe him as his father. And I have stopped trying to talk him out of his dream.
So on this Memorial Day, this pacifist thinks of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the men who gave their lives at Omaha Beach. I think of Cape Cod, getting drunk with my friends and then getting sober with the locals. I think of watching men in uniform on a town green while heaving with exhaustion on a basketball court. I think of Michael Kamber and Tim Hetherington. I think of my dad, the pacifist and protestor. And I think of my son, the West Point recruit.