By Joni Halpern
I’ve been seeing ghosts lately. Ghosts of people I’ve known and never known. They rise from visions of pure white teeth climbing the mouths of rolling hills, erupting in rows along grassy plains. Teeth, in a mouth that grows bigger with each passing year, teeth more numerous with each generation.
Out of these teeth rise the spirits of men and women, young and old, all colors, races, all religions and origins. These spirits once lived in a sharecropper’s shack in Kentucky, a brownstone in New York, a mobile home in Lancaster, a walk-up in Chicago. They once picked fruit in California, harvested grain in Kansas, mined coal in Virginia, raised cattle in Texas. In more recent years, they babysat a neighbor’s children in Arizona, graduated from a community college in Colorado, clerked in a grocery store in Hawaii, cleaned rooms at a resort in Alaska.
These spirits evaporated from the arms of their mothers and fathers, watched their spouses and children slip away while waving to them across the growing gap of land or water, swallowed their tears of loneliness and grasped onto their fellows as a lifeline of family.
The thing about these ghosts that haunts me is that they gave it all. Maybe they hadn’t read all the detailed histories about the frailties, egotism, and mistaken notions that have clouded the decision-making of American leadership over the years. Maybe it didn’t make any difference. Maybe they just thought that if they met the obligation they saw as belonging to them, we would all respect that. And we would do so by making sure that we did not waste their generous offering by permitting our leaders to engage in the reckless and wanton pursuit of their own, or our, aggrandizement.
But we have not taken this care. Instead, we are making our history out of war. Of course, the thing about war is that it comes to us in disguise, puffed up with our pride, cloaked in the stories we have chosen to remember, sauntering down Main Street like a giant, every step bringing thunder to our hearts. In this disguise, War takes away our fear and buries it beneath his bluster, grabbing our flag and thrusting it toward the heavens.
So we go into battle, reluctantly at times in our history, then more frequently, then finally incessantly, until the condition of being at war becomes the same thing for us as being who we are. We are American; we are at war.
But now and then, we catch a glimpse of War without his costume, his music, or his swagger. We see his footprints soaked in blood, the edges of his cloak stained with the bloody handprints of children and other innocents. Long after he is gone, we bear his memory in our losses, and the spirits he has taken from us linger in our pain.
But lately, we seem not to have given much thought at all to the spirits of those who inhabit those toothy hills and meadows. After all, they are volunteers, so we needn’t examine too closely whether their blood is wasted on hapless endeavors that shred the lives of foreign nations or American families.
As long as there are patriots who feel the need to serve and poor people whose children have no other affordable avenue for self-sustaining employment, we only have to make sure we can outfit them. And naturally, we want to increase the military budget at the expense of every other need in our nation, so War will look good when he struts down Main Street.
After seventeen years of war in the Middle East, as we add pure white teeth to the yawning mouths of our service members’ resting places, don’t we at least owe these spirits a thought: Shall we continue to conduct ourselves as if our bravado does not have to be paid for with their blood? Shall we continue to treat our role in the world as a singular statement of solitary might that shall serve only its own interests, and the rest of the world be damned? Shall we treat each other – the families of these spirits – as if each of us is the enemy of the other? Shall we?
The blood of your children, Dear Ohio, is American blood, human blood, like that of our children in every state. It nourishes a life that most likely is cherished by loved ones, the same way such a life is cherished everywhere in the world. Isn’t it worth asking, after 17 years at war, if perhaps we should honor all our cherished lives by finding our way to peace and stability in this world?
One more thing, Dear Ohio, though I know this letter is long. When it is our time to inhabit the ground, will each of us be able to say the same thing about ourselves we can say about these spirits? Will we be able to say we have given it all to our country – or have we sat amidst our cars and phones, our video games and barbecues, our flags and pledge of allegiance, and abrogated our duty as citizens of a democracy to challenge whether the blood of our countrymen is being spilled in righteousness, or in vain.
Watch out, Dear Ohio. If you close your eyes for a moment, you too can see the ghosts.