I traveled to the East Coast of the U.S. for a few days to visit my oldest and youngest relatives — my father’s brother age 91, and my sister’s son, age 18.
My nephew is finishing his first year at George Washington University.
I visited Washington, D.D. when I was ten and haven’t been back since, so I was delighted when Nathan offered to take me on a walking tour of his favorite haunts, just blocks away from the university.
We started at the Lincoln Memorial, a glorious tribute to a great man. Then we toured the three war memorials. The first was in honor of the Korean War.
In an area the size of a small garden, about a dozen realistically carved figures depict soldiers with tense and watchful eyes, making their way across enemy territory. They wear battle dress, with packs on their backs, rifles in hand, and rain parkas covering it all. Even their bootlaces are carefully replicated.
“To get the full effect,” Nathan said, “you need to see it at night. The figures are lit from below. Their faces are so carefully etched, in the shadowy light you can read their thoughts in their eyes. Actually, it’s a little scary,” Nathan confessed.
“You feel as they must have felt, that at any moment a sniper could take your life. It makes you appreciate what those soldiers went through.”
Even in the daylight, I could feel the courage of those men bravely following their commander across that distant field all those years ago.
From “Korea” we went to the monument to World War II. This is a huge plaza, with columned porticos at either end. Carved eagles and other patriotic symbols abound, with waterfalls, reflecting pools, and the names of the significant battles etched in stone.
Also carved into the walls are excerpts from stirring and heartfelt speeches praising liberty and urging citizens and soldiers to persevere until victory is achieved.
Even though I can’t imagine myself picking up a rifle, I am not a pacifist, and these many words moved me. Schooled in the Bhagavad Gita, I can appreciate the concept of a “righteous war.” Being from a Jewish family, the willingness of so many to sacrifice so much to defeat Hitler inspires my deep gratitude. I cannot help but be moved by heroism and sacrifice on such a scale.
Everything in this world is a mixture of good and bad. Paramhansa Yogananda made the fascinating statement that, in the beginning, there was still some question whether Hitler would use his power to serve the light or the darkness.
When Yogananda passed through Europe in 1936 on his way to India, he tried to meet with Hitler, in hopes of tipping the balance toward the light. But he wasn’t able to arrange the meeting.
Yogananda said that great masters in the Himalayas played a role in defeating Hitler. It was their hidden influence, he said, that led Hitler to make the foolish decision to conduct the war on two fronts. Because of this error, his forces were spread thin and it hastened his defeat.
Everything about the monument to World War II, reflected the glory of war. One could easily imagine how people of soldierly temperament would willingly engage in the noble enterprise of defending freedom.
It is important to understand that for some people the willingness to go to war, to give one’s life for a cause one believes in, is an expansion of consciousness beyond self-concern. For others, virulent nationalism is a step backward from embracing mankind as one’s own.
At any rate, back to Washington, D.C.
From World War II, we walked on to the Vietnam War Memorial.
I have, of course, seen photos and films of this extraordinary monument. But nothing prepared me for the experience.
The World War II monument is tasteful, but decorative in the extreme. The emphasis is on the romance of war.
There is nothing of that in the Vietnam Memorial. It is utterly stark. Everything is stripped away except the enormous human cost of the war.
Black marble slabs, varying from a few inches to a few feet in height, stand in line to make a wall. The names of the soldiers who died are engraved by the date of their death. There is an alphabetical guidebook at each end to help locate the name one is seeking.
At the beginning of the wall, a few inches suffice to list those who died. At the peak of the war, the list is several feet tall. The size of the slabs declines until the last name is carved on a piece of black marble a few inches high.
There are no fountains, reflecting pools, carved eagles, or bells. No stirring words. Just names, and objects placed at the base by those wanting to remember the soldiers on the plaque.
This is a memorial to inspire people never to go to war again.
At the same time, I reminded myself, death itself is not a tragedy. All those who are born must die. Just a week earlier, in a children’s play about the Buddha, this point was repeated again and again: life is change. Only consciousness endures.
In most cases, the death of those soldiers caused pain to those who were left behind — a pain I felt as I walked next to the black wall. But it doesn’t mean that for the soldiers themselves their death was tragic.
Krishna speaks to this point in the Bhagavad Gita. Death is life’s “final exam,” he says. Those who face death bravely, on a real battlefield, or in the “battlefield” of life, go to heavenly realms. Meaning, they advance in God-consciousness.
Still, the human experience is anguishing.
Yet this life, in the end, is a blessing, for it gives us the incentive to realize God and transcend suffering —our own, and the pain we experience in the suffering of others. My visit to the Vietnam Memorial, certainly, was a powerful spiritual incentive.
Let us pray that, as those soldiers had the courage and devotion to give up their bodies, we will have the courage to give up our egoic self in the greatest cause of all: realizing God.
In divine friendship,