His body was draped in stars and stripes. Rifle shots were fired in perfect cadence, while the bugler played his tune that makes even the strongest men break down and cry. Storied men dressed in military garb stepped forward to perform their last salute. The tears streaking from their eyes burned the soul. These were his brothers, bound by an eternal love. Attending his funeral maintained their pact made ages ago. These were the images of my first experience with death. I could not comprehend at that age what is was my grandfather did, but even through my own tears I could sense it was something greater than I. We gathered together to celebrate the life of a man we loved, but also to remember my grandfather’s glory found in his sacrifice for a noble cause.
Modern war is often seen as inhumane because of the methods used to achieve its ends, and because of this many soldiers worthy of glory do not receive such renown. Therefore, many look to the ancient tales of war such as those accounted by Homer and Thucydides and attempt to provide an explanation for the glory found in war. The glory of these warriors relied on both sides of a sword – to slay as many men as they could, and to die in the process. But the conditions of war have changed since then, making it eerily impersonal. I often ask my friends who had enlisted, “Why did you enter the service?” I looked up to these friends, and since the glory found in modern war is confusing, I wished to know if they fought for glory or for something else. A common response has etched itself in my mind: “It’s just something I felt that I needed to do.” I have doubts that my friends envision themselves storming the walls of a bastille on horseback, leaving the enemy trembling in the wake of their mighty sword. Such romanticisms were left in generations long passed by. So what direction has the glory of war taken? What glory did the young men find in World War I, spending grueling months in a gangrene-infested trench awaiting almost certain death? Not too long before, these same young men embraced their loving mother as she kissed them on the forehead, sobbing uncontrollably as she barely managed to say goodbye. Even the monsters in her dreams cannot prepare her for such a journey. One her son will understand all too well. There are few who truly know how quickly a discharged bullet can suck the life out of a man, but he soon will. No Homeric poem will be written for his valiant last stand.
There was nothing particularly uplifting when considering my grandfather’s time spent in uniform. Not but a few days over the age of 18, he laced up his boots and was sent to Europe after being drafted by the United States Military. He was assigned as a gunner on a B-17 Bomber and ordered to claim the lives of men he had never known. Not long into his tour of duty, a mother’s worst fear soon became reality. It was almost unavoidable.
His armored plane had taken too much damage and the crew was forced to bail. Preparing his parachute to evacuate the plane, my grandfather’s boot wedged itself in the frame of the aircraft. He was plummeting from the sky, like a captain going down with his ship. Frantically searching for a way out, he was able to loosen the grip on his foot, cheating death, and released himself from the plane. All now seemed well – or at least he thought. His military issue boots only momentarily enjoyed the freedom provided by the soft earth, as they were soon shackled together by the German infantry awaiting his arrival on ground. Death seemed to be silently stalking him at every turn. He was now a prisoner of war.
Months slipped by as he endured incomprehensible torture of both mind and body. He would go to sleep at night praying only that the darkness of his eyelids would not last. Hoping that there would be a day where he could return to the normalcy of his loving family and home. A home where bullets did not come screaming through in the middle of the night so close that one could smell the hot metal piercing the cold air. Simple comforts were the ones missed most; a bed, warm food, the companionship of loved ones. He could tolerate torture, but not the loss of freedom.
My grandfather did not slay many men in battle like the raging Achilles, and maybe it was better that way. Because even though the methods of ancient war seem to be more humane due to its personal and less grotesque nature, the purposes of ancient war make it less glorious. Achilles took the lives of men for its own sake and left the living to submit themselves to the rule of a foreign king. My grandfather did not enter battle hoping to slay and conquer the men of many nations to secure his own personal glory. His glory was achieved through the willingness to sacrifice life for a just cause or principle. My grandfather did not fall in combat, but he risked his mortal life for an immortal principle. So whenever that old document speaks so loud and true that “All men are created equal” and “that they are endowed by their Creator certain unalienable Rights,” his glory shines just as true. He was one of the quiet protectors of this principle, and will always remain one.
Gary Haglund is a junior from Amherst, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.