A Poem for Memorial Day
I’m always conflicted on holidays like this one. I don’t like glorifying war, and I don’t like glorifying the military. I never have. I understand the need for a military, and I even acknowledge that at times, wars can be just, even necessary, but I still don’t like anything about them. And it’s too easy for people to take days like today and turn them into excuses for jingoism and hyper-patriotism for me to ever really embrace them.
So when I went looking for a poem to post for today, I wanted something that acknowledged the tragedy of war, and I went with this selection from Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, Book 24: Achilles and Priam, beginning in line 570:
“Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles–
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
No doubt the countrymen round about him plague him now,
with no one there to defend him, beat away disaster.
No one–but at least he hears you’re still alive
and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day,
to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy.
But I–dear god–my life so cursed by fate…
I fathered hero sons in the wide realm of Troy
and now not a single one is left, I tell you.
Fifty sons had I when the sons of Achaea came,
nineteen born to me from a single mother’s womb
and the rest by other women in the palace, Many,
most of them violent Ares cut the knees from under.
But one, one was left me, to guard my walls, my people–
the one you killed the other day, defending his fatherland,
my Hector! It’s all for him I’ve come to the ships now,
to win him back from you–I bring a priceless ransom.
Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right,
remember your own father! I deserve more pity…
I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before–
I put my to lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
One other thing. On days like today, set aside in memory of those who do the fighting, also remember those people who had the bad luck to be caught in the middle, who are the true victims of a failure of imagination or diplomacy or humanity. Remember those killed in the crossfire, who starve or die of treatable illnesses because the battle destroys their infrastructure. They deserve our memory too.