Memorial Day brings summer.  It is filled with memories of good times, barbeques, beaches, and outdoor activities of all sorts.   With the heat and humidity reaching stifling levels in the mid-Atlantic, this year’s Memorial Day weekend certainly delivered on summer’s start.  This was my 50th Memorial Day.  And while I observed it with a fair amount of food and friends, this year was different.  I have made a point of remembering.
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My grandfather, Seth Koch, was born in 1891.  He served as an infantryman in the Great War, now known as World War I.  He never spoke of it to me directly.  A few summer ago, Pablo and I travelled to the mid-West to visit my Uncle, my father’s only brother.  Stored carefully away in boxes in his basement is an archivist’s dream.  Photos.  Documents.  Records.  Handwritten journals.  Accounting ledgers.  My grandfather and his progeny are were (and are) prolific record keepers.  In these boxes were hundreds of original photos that told the remarkable tale of his service fighting the Germans in the trenches along the French battlefront.  His Army-issued gas mask was particularly evocative. It smelled of dust and age and human sweat.

History suggests that the immediate origins of the Great War lay in the decisions taken by statesmen and generals during the crisis of 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by a radial Serbian. The more immediate cause for the war was tension over territory in the racially, religiously and ethnically diverse Balkans. Ironically, the tensions in the Balkans that thrust Europe into this Great War have largely been forgotten by modern minds.  The renewed tensions in the 1990s, and the American incursions into the Balkans, not understood in the context of these earlier tensions that sent my grandfather into France.

My Uncle and my father’s only brother, Keith Koch, was born in the early 1920s.  He served as an Air Force fighter pilot in World War II and flew bombing missions over Germany during the final months of the War.  He makes light of his service.  During that summer visit as we looked through boxes of memorabilia, photos of his service drew scant glances.  He would persist instead, much to the irritation of my Aunt Donna, in recounting his memories of a "special" female friend who he met during training.  Old aerial photos of the German terrain they were to study and then bomb made me think of Google Maps.  How far technology has come.  How much we take for granted.

World War II rose directly out of the ashes of World War I; a defeated Germany left demoralized and economically broken -- this environment serving as a perfect breeding ground for the German-nationalist fervor that would allow the rapid rise of Adolf Hitler.  The rest is – as they say – history.  Nationalist rhetoric began with themes of economic justice and revenge; then morphed quickly and darkly into religious genocide.  Ironically, though we hesitate to draw such analogies in modern conversation, much of the Islamist-terrorist threat we face today is economic at its root but is now viewed by most as almost exclusively driven by religion.

My father, Wayne Koch, was born in 1928.  He served as a Marine; fighting on the ground in China and Korea.  The photos of his service are at once the hardest for me to look at -- and the ones of which I am most proud.  I bear an uncanny resemblance to my father.  Looking at these photos is a bit like looking at a past-life doppelganger.  The family has carefully saved my father’s Marine dress uniform.  From it, I know that he was quite thin during his service -- and smaller than I.  As well, a few of his letters home to my grandparents have survived.  He writes of the camaraderie and company of his fellow marines, and the strange sights and customs of Asia.  He inquires about life at home on the farm.

Out of the ashes of World War II rose the communist threat.  My father fought to prevent the spread of communism throughout the Korean peninsula.  Ironically, despite the fall of the monolithic Russian threat, we face today serious threats from a persistently communist and now nuclear-armed North Korea.

I have no military service to recount.  My generation: too young for Vietnam and raised after the anger-filled, anti-war politics following Vietnam had put an end to the draft – we were “spared.” No one in my generation, none of my male or female cousins on either side, served in the US military. 

Two of my nephews, son and step-son of my older sister, currently serve.  One serves in the Navy on Trident submarine stationed in the Pacific -- no doubt watchful of the Korean peninsula.  The other, after a tour of duty in Iraq, continues to serve state-side as a Marine.

I read recently David Levering Lewis’ God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215.  I was struck by the historical triangulation between the world’s three great (non-pacifist) western religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  I was struck by the endless history of war; the dogged history of pursuit for domination among these three.  And, struck by how throughout history the balance has shifted as religious interested and alliances among the three have shifted. 
 
It was George Santayana, Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist that said: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
 


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