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My father died four years ago. He was a Marine veteran from WWII, a recipient of the Silver Star for heroism in battle in the South Pacific, where he served in the horrific battles of Peleliu and Okinawa where he was wounded. He witnessed many friends and comrades die and was himself wounded on Okinawa. He was transferred to the marine baracks and hospital in Klamath Falls, Oregon where he met my mother and began life as an Oregonian.
My dad was also a politician in later years, a member of the city council in Medford, Oregon and had campaigned for mayor. He had been a life long Republican but was increasingly upset at the Republican's extremism, at their use of patriotism as a way to divide Americans rather than unite them, and at the tragedy of the Iraq war, wasting young lives and our national resources to justify tragic decisions by men who had done everything possible to avoid military service themselves.
Dad was also upset at the Republican tactics of marginalizing gay people and the policies of destruction of our environment and public lands in the name of greed. Two weeks before his death, when he was slowing dying of kidney failure he went to the Jackson county court house and changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat, for the first time in his life, because he then saw the Democratic party as upholding the values that define America. I hope and pray that the leaders and office holders of the Democratic party can live up to his decision.
Two weeks ago I returned from St. Petersburg, Russia. My second trip (didn't see all I had wanted to the first trip -- plus wanted to spend some time with my friend who lives there).
At first I had planned to return May 9, but upon being informed May 9 is Victory Day in Russia, I stayed an extra day to be there.
Victory Day is the national Russian holiday when they remember and celebrate the end of the Great War (what we call World War 2). You may remember seeing some brief media coverage about the big military parade (including armaments and missles and soldiers) in Moscow. As Friday approached, we talked about what to do on that Friday.
Thursday afternoon as we left a museum, I spotted a band on the back of a flat-bed truck in the park -- and people dancing. We sat down while citizens -- many of whom had dressed up in very realistic-looking WW2 Russian uniforms -- enthusiastically clapped along and danced (I saw a middle-aged guy do a passable Cossack step for a brief time).
Friday I had wanted to go down to Palace Square (adjacent to the Winter Palace), but that experience was primarily for the "invited". Instead, we started the day by watching the Moscow parade on television.
The event started with speeches by Medvedev and Putin, followed by companies (or divisions -- don't know the terminology, but blocks of 120 men) from the 10 or 11 different branches of the Russian military and then vehicles and then bigger weapons, followed by a fly-over of every type of currently operational aircraft.
Start to finish, the entire parade was 70 minutes. While I didn't see a parade live, I got to see it on television with my own interpreter and "guide".
After the parade ended, I was asked what I would like to do next. The choice was a cemetary where her grandfather is buried or Piskaryovskoye Cemetary -- the anonymous graves of those who died during the Siege of Leningrad (the former name of Saint Petersburg). We headed out to the cemetary with anonymous mass graves.
We got off the trolley-bus and walked across the street.
Stretched out over 10 or more acres were 186 mass common graves, each of which was 25 yards x 15 yards with a total of 420,000 civilians and 50,000 soldiers who had died and been buried without name (out of a total of 1.5 million from the City who died during the most lethal siege of a major city in modern history).
I couldn't walk more than 40 yards into the cemetary without having to sit down to absorb it. Hundreds of people were there with us and tens of thousands more had obviously been there earlier because the edges of particularly the mass graves closest to the center were where flowers had been placed. In some instances, the 25 x 15 yard edges were 3 or 4 flowers deep.
I asked her to tell me about it. There is virtually no family in Saint Petersburg who had not had people in their family who died. She told me of her great grandfather. Her grandmother's sister. Somebody else's child. None of her relatives were in the common graves, but whether she had a family member among the 470,000 or not, the sadness and memory for people she had been related to who had died was obvious.
Opposite the street entrance is a tall statute and a tall memorial wall. It told the story of the cemetary (since everyone buried was anonymous, no names were listed). Dozens, if not hundreds of large floral pieces were laid against the wall (sometimes 2 or 3 deep). As we walked along, she told me the names of the groups, countries and other organizations who had sent arrangements. She had to tell me because the sashes were in Chryllic letters. Unions. Trade groups. Kazahkstan. Muslim church. There was only one floral arrangement written in Roman letters. "From the People of the United States of America". If there was a better symbol of the tone-deafness of America in its foreign policy at that moment, I don't know what it might be. While many Russians can speak and read English, most of the people I saw there did not, because of their age.
Despite the state of our young country, America has had it pretty easy. We have not had our country invaded. We have not had one of our biggest city surrounded and pounded for 19 months.
In the context of that experience, I can understand the fierce pride and yes -- even nationalism -- that Russia exhibited when, for the first time since 1991, they would parade their military and hardware.
Are we different from Russian citizens? Not so much. But if there is one thing I have learned in my various trips outside America, lack of experience in a different country or culture (meaningful -- not a diplomatic drop-in) can easily blind one to that fact. Rather than sniffing suspiciously at the fact Sen. Obama has spent substantial time outside the country, we should be embracing it. Instead of focusing only on our differences, I think we would go a lot farther by at least acknowledging our similarities.
Do we believe that those who are not Americans feel grief at the loss of family any less than we do?
It is certainly my hope and prayer that we are finally led by someone who understands this.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Randy. That was a great story.
Thursday, our 7 year old and other members of his Scout pack,went a short distance to Willamette Cemetary to plant flags and learn about Memorial Day. The boys would clean off the grave marker and the parents would read the name of each person. Then each boy would say "thank you " before they planted the flag into the ground. It is a beautiful, bittersweet sight to behold. Our boy came home with a hoarse voice and a deep heart. As progressive people, my husband and I had some concerns about him joining Boy Scouts because of their discrimination against gay men. But lessons like these are pretty important too. And it will be our job to explain that some of those graves they decorated were of gay soldiers. As we went to visit my father's grave today, ( a veteran of WWII and the Secret Service) I couldn't help but think about the families who would visit today with still fresh scars of death from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Semper Fi, Travis.
...those who died during the Siege of Leningrad (the former name of Saint Petersburg)
Well, it was one former name. Of course the former name for St. Petersburg was St. Petersburg.
It just hit me why your name has looked familiar. I am unsure of your relation to Travis but please know that he and your family are in our family's prayers this evening. From what I have read and recall of the press coverage, Travis was an exceptional young man and a very charasmatic soul. Shalom.
Randy, to add a little less personal context, the Soviet Union lost about 20 million dead (soldiers and civilians) in World War II, about 10% of the population, while total U.S. war fatalities were something under 300,000.
One in any war is too many.
Randy, to add a little less personal context, the Soviet Union lost about 20 million dead (soldiers and civilians)
in World War II...
Yes, and that comes out to well over 10,000 people per day
during the almost four years following the German invasion.
Would have been fewer had Stalin allowed evacuation of civilians from large cities like Leningrad instead of forcing them to remain.
You could be right Bob, I don't know, though I do know that in recent African crises people fleeing violence into the countryside often die in large numbers. Maybe more orderly evacuations that would have kept people fed and sheltered were possible but not carried out. But my point was about the social memory to which Randy alludes.
People make their own meanings about remembering how they cope with things they don't and do control, whether it's Nazi invaders or Communist dictators or being sent off to fight in trumped up aggressions by superpowers against much smaller oil-rich countries, or all the other myriad bad ways of war, and the choices about how to respond, try to survive, try to help their families, friends, comrades in arms.
John Bradach is right -- and sympathies, John.
It will be soon be five years since we got the word on Travis, on July 2, 2008. So, maybe "sympathy" is not the right word, anymore.
Your next to the last paragraph is right. Whether it is one, three, five, or 500,000, there is solace in doing meaningful things in memory, on Memorial Day, and every day.
Here is another try at the link I botched in the earlier email, with some of those things, over the last four years. http://john.bradach.net/<ahef=http: john.bradach.net=""/>
*** And your point is???????
*** Why is empathy such a difficult concept for Republicans?
And your point is???????
The Soviet people didn't deserve to lose millions because of their own dictator. Just an observation.
I don't know -- go ask one.
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