By Brian L. Grant, M.D.
I write this during a quick trip to the sun of Hawaii, island of Oahu.
We took a drive up scenic Tantalus Drive, to catch an aerial view of Honolulu. At the turnout there was another car. Two young men and a woman. One of the men was in a wheelchair. He had no legs and wore a prosthesis for his left arm – a triple amputee.
We three exchanged pleasantries and I commented on his T-shirt that said “Team X-T.R.E.M.E”. He told me it has to do with veterans doing some extraordinary physical activities. I asked him how he was injured and he said Afghanistan in August 2010. His name is Todd Love. Todd is 22.
Our visit was brief and I did my research upon returning to the hotel. There were no shortages of articles about Todd. I contained myself until getting back in the car. This was an unplanned visit that served to accent our next planned stop.
Minutes later, we turned into the Punchbowl Cemetery, known as Arlington of the Pacific. This beautiful cemetery houses remains of approximately 53,000 veterans from World War I through Vietnam Era veterans, along with stunning memorials with graphic histories of these conflicts. Beautifully landscaped, it is a special, solemn and sacred place.
The next day we took in the most popular tourist spot in Hawaii, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
A well-organized place, one gets tickets for a time slot to see an instructive film about the Pearl Harbor Attack of December 7, 1941 before boarding a small boat that takes you to the memorial building constructed in the water, above the sunken ship where 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and marines killed on that vessel lie. All told, the 353 Japanese planes sunk four battle ships and damaged an additional four. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed as well as several other vessels. 2,402 Americans were killed and 1,282 wounded. The attack lasted slightly less than two hours.
I make a point of visiting war memorials and related sites during travels. Around 1984, I visited the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia. This cemetery contains the remains of about a half a million victims of the 900 day Siege of Leningrad during World War II. Most of these were civilians. It was a somber visit with the laying of a wreath by our group. Marshall music played over speakers. The Russians knew war first hand on their soil and paid dearly in the past century at a level we Americans have fortunately been spared.
In 1994 during a trip to France, we visited the Normandy Beaches and the adjacent cemetery containing the remains of almost 10,000 Americans who died in and around the D-Day landings. You may recall the site from the film “Saving Private Ryan”.
As far as one could see were fields of crosses and the occasional Star of David. A short walk brings one to the cliffs overlooking the landing beaches, with remains of German bunkers intact high above the water.
Seeing the geography of the site first hand, I could imagine the terror of those soldiers as they came ashore, under fire from above. To the Germans, it was like shooting ducks in a barrel. Our soldiers knew that living or dying was a matter of a perverse lottery of where the bullets and their bodies happened to be at any given moment. I understood sacrifice and heroism in new terms.
Our French hosts from Normandy treated us young Americans, born after the war, with thanks and respect for what our parent’s and grandparent’s generations did to liberate their country. How strange. I could not accept the credit but enjoy their friendship and hospitality to this day.
Prior to this visit, my exposure to war was from the tortured Vietnam era, during which I came of age as a teenager. It was a time of ambivalence to not only the war, but the men and women who served there. Thankfully, we have embraced the service of our soldiers, while that war remains a matter of ongoing debate, as have those that followed, including the Afghanistan conflict that claimed the limbs of Todd Love.
Since then I have visited the breathtaking memorials to Viet Nam, Korean War and World War II several times in Washington, D.C. I recall my first encounter with the Korean War Memorial one night during a jog along the Capitol Mall. I encountered the lifesize statues of soldiers in the dark, but with a spotlight on their faces, alert and on patrol. It was breathtaking, aligning the power of war with that of the artist.
I have visited several holocaust museums and the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic.
I have driven along roads in beautiful Croatia, where from 1992-1995, citizens were being subject to genocide. And where today there are still signs warning of remaining mines in adjacent fields.
There are unfortunately no shortages of war memorials and battle sites that, could if one chose, become the primary travel destination rather than an interlude during restful vacations or business visits.
I imagine that to the degree that I travel, where war or memory of war is, I will visit. The reasons are complex. These sites, especially memorials, are generally places of somber beauty and often great artistry.
One shares the experience with fellow citizens and tourists from around the world in the U.S., or as a tourist abroad sharing it with the locals whose own people suffered or bore witness. I think about the sacrifices of war and how I would have fared if given the obligation or opportunity to serve. In most cases ordinary men were forced by circumstance and history into extraordinary situations. Some fought and some supported the fighters. Some died, some were wounded and some survived. In many cases civilians were slaughtered or starved.
The visits combine historic curiosity with honor and respect. These sites reduce the abstraction of war. Some glorify it with heroic murals and grand quotes, while others put stark numbers and names to the dead.
They cause one to wonder how it is that the wars start, how one side is seen as enemy to the other, while both generally view their cause as the right and just one. I think about the alternative of going to war or doing nothing in the face of evil and death of innocents. I wonder but doubt that such evil will ever end.