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Al Martinez

Amid the din of drums and bugles, a disturbing silence

July 09, 2007|Al Martinez

I heard America singing on the 231st anniversary of freedom, and the music was pervasive.

I heard it in the muffled boom of fireworks over the horizon of hills beyond Sunland, and in the trill of children at a beach in Santa Monica.

I heard it in the surge of brass and the drumming of hearts that accompanied the crescendo of our national anthem.

I heard it in the sizzle and fizz of beer and burgers in 10,000 backyard barbecues, in the oom-pah-pah of parades marching down the boulevards of the Valley and in the toneless music of commerce played deep in the belly of the malls.

I heard it as the poet Walt Whitman heard it a century and a half ago in the "varied carols" of men willing to battle the devil for the existence of a free society.

But it's what I didn't hear that bothers me today.

I heard no songs of peace sung in competition to the drums and bugles. I saw no crowds gather to sing not only of an America that is good, but of an America that could be better.

I heard no melancholy in the music played fortissimo under rows of flags and balloons that bore the colors of a nation proud of its heritage but unsure of its future.

Hearing bombast in the music of a people trapped by war, I couldn't help thinking of the young warriors 8,000 miles away on a mission for America that has never been darker. And I wondered at the growing disinterest in a peace movement beyond Cindy Sheehan that would bring our armies home.

I decided that most Americans just cannot empathize with those at war, because they've never been in one. They know it only through the sophistry of self-sustaining politicians, or in the false bravado of screeching hawks. So I've composed the four phases of combat as a reminder of what exists beyond the glow of secular nationalism.

Phase One is the aura of invulnerability that accompanies young warriors as they stride off to battle, a feeling that protects them from distant realities. Dying, they will tell you, is the fate of someone else, not them. They will remain untouched by the bullets and shrapnel that shape the economy of their embattled lives.

Phase Two is when death nudges closer, taking a friend who has suffered next to them through months of combat training, a brother in arms alive one moment and gone the next, like the transitory drift of a passing cloud. A soldier new to war's caprice is suddenly transformed by the silence of the dead, and the emptiness of death's eyes.

Phase Three embraces the terrible knowledge that it can happen to you, that eternity rides on the winds of combat's shifting fortunes, hovering over landscapes that war morphs into graveyards. It is a fearful and lonely realization, the facing of one's mortality, and it comes, as knowledge often does, at the price of an easy mind.

Finally, Phase Four. This is not, as you might suppose, death or injury, because they fall into a category of their own. Soldiers and civilians lie side by side in the awful unity of silence and pain, either beyond eternity or walking proof of combat's violence. Wearers of the Purple Heart will live to relive their agony, and those untouched by bullets or shrapnel will join them in the view, because that's what Phase Four really is: memory.

Recall is the aftermath of war that wounds the soul, and a veteran can never again walk free from the shadow it casts. War reminds its aging sons what it was like to be death's companion. The memories come in nightmares that gallop through the darkness, or in flashes of horror that fire through the head at unexpected moments; while driving, while dining, while listening to music, while playing with children, while watching a movie, while making love.

Surviving war is only a part of coming home. Memories of incidents too hard to bear attend each warrior who slips once more into civilian life. The darkness will eventually also encompass those closest to him, so that the victims of war will increase exponentially to include an entire culture, sharing pain's physiology with the young who once marched away and who now straggle back.

They -- we -- share the music of America in different ways, adding to an anniversary observed with flags and bugles by reminding those clapping to the beat of anthems that the downside of patriotic music is often a moan.

Listen closely and you'll hear the discord of human pain trailing through compositions that stir the soul. The last bugle to play will sound taps. It will be as much for a culture diminished by war as it is for a soldier who dies in one.

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