Do you know what’s coming next Wednesday? In the early morning hours — to be precise, at six seconds past 4:05 a.m. — the time and date will be:
Aren’t you glad you found that out? Otherwise, you would have missed it entirely — you probably would have been sleeping or something. Now you can celebrate the moment by running around your yard shouting, waving a couple of sparklers you’ll save from the 4th just for the purpose. That’s what I’d be doing . . . if I had a yard.
Anyway — Happy Fourth of July!
I’ve been thinking hard about this holiday over the last few days.
Not long ago, I read an article about George Washington, which described how he miraculously escaped death on several occasions, both as a young man and during the Revolution. I’m talking miraculous — he should have been toast, but wasn’t — close-range bullets strangely not hitting him, and one instance in which a British soldier had him in the sights of a newly-developed, far-shooting rifle . . . but didn’t realize who this tall, imposing fellow was, and decided it just wasn’t decent to kill a man in such a way. And without the leadership of Washington, it’s very possible — even probable — that the nearly hopeless American army would have been completely hopeless, and the war lost.
A friend this week was telling me about how, by nearly any historian’s estimation, the Revolution was a war that the Americans never should have won. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and severely lacking in training, battle experience, and seasoned leaders. They suffered some terrible defeats. What saved them again and again — and eventually turned the tide of the war — was geography, and the weather, and what many great minds of the time could only attribute to Divine Providence: the hand of God shaping human history.
Throughout my life I’ve connected Glory Day — July 4th — with freedom. But for me growing up, that meant “freedom from school.” I linked the holiday to the fun of fireworks and cookouts and spending time with friends and relatives met only rarely. Fun, fun, fun: but that fun and that freedom were bought at a heavy price.
There was a scene in the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, that really brought the impact of the Revolution home to me. Mel Gibson’s character, an American farmer, comes out onto his porch and sees a line of British redcoats advancing into view from among the trees in his pasture. As I sat there in the theater, that scene jolted me to the core. THAT was the Revolution: enemy troops in your pasture, stepping around the trees you climbed as a kid. Enemy troops in your yard. Shooting at you.
That was the reality then, and it’s the reality today for many people in the world.
It’s about a different war, but I know anyone who saw Saving Private Ryan on the big screen will never forget it. Yes, I mean the first half-hour or so, the intensely realistic depiction of the Allies coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy, under the muzzles of the German guns. When I saw that film, I seriously questioned what I was doing as a writer. At the time, I was working on The Fires of the Deep, a fantasy that takes place during a war. My book included several large-scale battle scenes of precisely that type. The movie made me ask myself whether I had any right to be doing that — to be using war as a part of a fiction book written to entertain readers. I, who have never fought in a war . . . writing a book about war . . . war as entertainment. I felt I should burn the manuscript and go start apologizing to veterans.
Tolkien had far more of a right, if anyone does: he fought in World War I, lost something like three of his four closest friends in the Battle of the Somme, caught trench fever, and was invalided home. So when he writes of battle, it’s quite real. He knows whereof he speaks, and he never misrepresents war. When we read LOTR, we come away knowing that war is a dark, sorrowful thing.
It’s true that martial conflict has always been an element explored and utilized by the poets and writers of the human race, because war is what we humans do, as much as we do anything else. Certainly its drama, its consequence, and its absolutes help to define characters, and writers love to work with stuff like that.
It’s also true that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, one of the best-known and enduring novels of the Civil War, was written by a man who was not a soldier and had no firsthand experience of the war.
So I haven’t given up writing about war (and I didn’t burn the manuscript), but I hope I handle combat as the sad and horrifying inevitability it is in this sin-darkened world.
I have a cousin who is a veteran of Vietnam. Like Tolkien, he lost very close friends in the slaughter. He came home full of metal fragments for which, even now in July 2009, he is having surgeries. He hates the 4th of July — not for what it means, but because of its physical stimuli: in hot, sultry, steamy weather, the sky is full of explosions, and the air is laced with the smell of gunpowder. It’s far too close a reenactment of what he experienced over there. The 4th is a holiday he grits his teeth and gets through.
When he read my story “Seawall,” the climactic battle story at the end of the Agondria cycle, he offered me his experience. “Let me tell you some things about what a person thinks and feels just before and during combat.” I would never have asked him to relive such things, but you can believe I listened with both ears and took very thorough notes. I revised “Seawall” accordingly — so if you read it, you’ll know that the battle parts are as close to the real thing as I can get them — I who do not know war and have no right.
While we’re on this topic: people ask me, since I live in Japan, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What’s it like?” . . . “Have you been there?” . . . “What do people think?” Yes, I’ve been to Hiroshima, but not to Nagasaki. I’ve seen the “Atomic Bomb Dome” — the one gutted, domed building that was left standing in August of 1945, because it was in the blast shadow, directly under ground zero. I’ve seen the Peace Park and the museum there, and that, too, is an experience I’ll never forget. Aside from all the written accounts, the films, the photos, and the half-melted artifacts on display there, three things in particular are etched in my memory:
One is a 360-degree photo, floor to ceiling, that covers the wall of a circular room in the museum. This picture (probably a carefully-pieced composite) was taken at the blast center. It shows flat, charred wreckage to the horizon in every direction. Where there was once a city full of people.
Another is a wall of maps for comparison. The maps are of several major cities in the world, with different colored circles showing you the effects of a bomb equal in strength to that dropped on Hiroshima. I picked out Chicago, where I’d gone to school for four years, and I spent quite a while studying which suburbs would be vaporized, which would be flattened, which would be set ablaze. . . . When it’s a city you know something about, there’s a lot you think about.
Finally, the museum has a long, long wall of illustrated accounts of the atomic explosion and the days afterward . . . done by children. Children who lived through it — what they saw, what they thought, what they felt, what they did. Big, childlike letters and colorful pictures. The pictures are very much like the gruesome scenes we kids (okay, we boys) drew for amusement, from our imaginations. But these were scenes that kids like ourselves actually saw.
The single most memorable piece we played in junior high band class was an arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It started out through a few verses with beauty and grandeur and mounting tension — a brave young country careening toward internal war. In the middle section, after the melody had risen to a kind of scream, all the wind instruments dropped out, and a grand timpani solo took over. The percussionist pounded the kettledrums, rattling the windows. Hooves, rifles, cannon fire . . . North and South, clashing headlong . . . John Brown, convinced “that the sins of this guilty country cannot be purged away but with blood.” Then the shots faded, the smoke rose, and a muted trumpet played a sorrowful lament. Finally, the other voices came back, reacquiring harmony, gathering strength. As a kid in junior high, I got goosebumps every single time we played it.
This isn’t a post about delight and enchantment this week. Maybe it’s a theme I should have saved for Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day. But I thought Glory Day, this time at the height of summer when we live to the fullest and read and write, watch movies, travel, and dream, would also be a good time for us all to remember a respect for our materials, whatever they may be. Those materials come to our hands at a price. Our freedom is the result of sacrifices made on our behalf . . . and it is the gift of a Power greater than ourselves, ordering our days.
Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character delivers a stern speech to Private Ryan, reminding him that his life, too, has been purchased at a great cost, so Ryan has a duty now to use his life well.
Is that not our only response to Providence? G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world around me. And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed TWO?”
And in the words of the unforgettable Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society:
“What will your verse be? Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Tags: American Revolution, atomic bomb, Civil War, D-Day, Dead Poets Society, G.K. Chesterton, George Washington, Hiroshima, John Brown, Normandy, Peace Park, providence, Saving Private Ryan, Stephen Crane, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Red Badge of Courage, Tolkien, Vietnam, war