November 22, 2006

Augustus and Winston

Gus’s caretaker had propped pillows up against the headboard, allowing him to sit up,
and it felt wonderful. Pictures were strewn all about him, as his parents, his children and his wife looked back at him courtesy of Mr. Eastman’s magic lantern.

All you had to do was look at the hues of the prints to determine the age of the subjects.
Dad and Mom were standing erect with not a hint of a smile. Getting your picture taken
in those days seemed to be a serious business. His children grew older and younger as
the photographs lay in no chronological order, and the memories came back in no order
accordingly. He had been blessed with good children, but it seemed by looking at the
pictures that he might have favored one over the other if you counted each image. But
in the march of changing technology, one was recorded by the still camera, another by
silent movies, and another by photographic slides, so on some future day, probably soon,
when they would sort through their father’s picture box, they might attach the amount of pictures, many or few, to favoritism, although that certainly was never the case. But that will be up to the individuals mindset, as it always is, and factored in with hundreds of other pieces of
the life they knew, until the final piece is assembled, and ‘the father’ they are comfortable
with and will remember for the rest of their lives appears.

A sudden sadness came over Gus as he pulled an often-handled photo out from under the pile.
A picture of a young, lean man with chiseled cheekbones and ash colored hair, named Hank
Potter from Norman, Oklahoma looked back at him. He, like hundreds of other men from
Oklahoma in those days, was nicknamed Okie. He stood posing in front of a tent, offering
him a taste of something from a tin can with the lid still attached and pulled back. He was
rubbing his stomach, in pantomime confirming the deliciousness of the rations; a cigarette
rested on his ear, a treat to be savored later after he had finished off the wonderful meal he
was pleased to share with him.

It was a happy day for all of us. We had survived the war and were preparing for shipment
home, except for Okie. He had decided that he really didn’t have much to go home to, and
he had found a home in the Army, as they liked to say. He was going to re-enlist. It was
the last picture taken of Okie before we shipped out.

It was the only picture he still had of Okie. They had written a couple letters back and forth,
but that soon petered out, as Okie got busy when Korea heated up and he went back to the
business of soldiering big time. The last letter he received was from a soldier he didn’t know
who explained that one of Hank’s wishes was that he be notified if anything happened to him.
He was killed when the North Koreans, aided by the Chinese, counter-attacked and pushed
the Americans into a full-scale retreat. The soldier said that Hank was one of the first killed,
so he didn’t live to be part of the retreat. He thought that might be a comfort to Gus. It hit him
hard and the pain never really went away, it just went down a level to a tolerable degree and
stayed there with the memories of his wife.

War is such a waste, he thought once again, and now he would have to worry about his grandson, who only this past week had gotten orders to prepare for deployment. He wassitting surrounded by his pictures, eyes closed, with his head lying back on his pillows when a now familiar voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Are we having a bad day Gus? Or are you trying to get a little shut-eye?” came the reedy voice
of Winston Cartier, his now daily visitor. Winston, a mouse of heroic intelligence, and little patience with self-pity, stood at his accustomed spot on the bedside table, standing atop whatever Gus was currently reading. His outfit of the day indicated that he must have been reading Gus’s thoughts. He was dressed all in khaki; shirt, trousers and necktie.

Gus, pleased to see his visitor, answered. “Neither; in the way you mean my friend, I’ve been
reminiscing about my war and worrying about my grandson’s war, and thinking that war has got
to be the most inane way to settle things ever devised by man. And it was man who devised it,
not God, because he wouldn’t have anything to do with it, of that I’m positive. You know, I find
it obscene that when we’re at war, both sides of the conflict invariably try to co-op God to their
side. Damn, that galls me. If we must fight these wars every ten years or so somewhere on the
planet, the blame should be on the combatants and not God, nor should we, or they, solicit his
blessings and put him at the head of the marching column and pretend that ‘our war’, ‘our side’,
is the side sanctioned and condoned by him. Nothing is farther from the truth and you know it.
If we must fight, and it seems we must, and right has to be on our side, then the people should be the ones that sanction our role in it. Leave God out of it, he will be busy enough gathering up the souls of those killed in the stinking conflicts that follow.”

“You’re really wound up in this aren’t you my friend”, said Winston, sitting down now since his
friend Gus seemed quite eager and ready to continue. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying, that God has no responsibility for what is going to happen?”

“No, I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is this. War’s are made by man, and will be fought by man. But each side invariably wants to put God in a flak jacket and a helmet, marching at the head of the column with a weapon slung over his shoulder, because our cause is divinely right. No, No, No. I think God looks at us killing each other and is properly disgusted with all of us.”

“Then,” Winston broke in, “you don’t believe in the Just War Theory?”

“I’m not sure I know what that is.”

“Well as you know, war’s have been going on forever. Even the bible hints at ongoing discussions about ethical behavior during wars. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote at length about justifications of war, and kinds of activity that are permissible. Moral considerations involving woman and children and treatment of prisoners are deemed honorable and should be adhered to, or dishonor will befall those who don’t adhere to the code. Indeed the Just War Theory believes that wars can be just, if they are fought ethically, and morally.”

Gus sat back and closed his eyes. “I’ve been in war, and I’ve thought a lot about war, but I don’t think I have ever thought about war being a moral undertaking. At least to the one’s who have to do the killing. I think it boils down to a kill or be killed proposition. Even in the Second World War, which was most likely America’s ‘Just War’, or as Studs Terkel titled his book, The Good War, when you boil it down to it’s essentials, it’s a killing game and I bet the parents of a fallen combatant on either side believe their son has fought and died for the right reasons, and for the right side. They have to, or they would never be able to go on with life. I think the term, a Just War, and The Good War is nothing but an oxymoron. Wars are dirty and immoral consequences of intelligent people not being able to find a better solution. In these days of instant world-wide communications between world leaders it is inconceivable to me that reasonable men
cannot find men of like mind and bypass the barbaric acts of war.”

Gus lay back on his pillow, out of breath, and out of words to express his sadness and frustrations over yet another armed conflict in the offing, and this one would include his grandchild.

Winston was, at this point, more than a little concerned that his friend Gus may have squandered too much of his diminishing supply of energy on a subject that is at best perplexing and most probably unsolvable. Although he understood that once a person is personally involved in war, it remains a hot subject never to be forgotten or softened by the passage of time. As far as the abolishment of all war, it seemed an impossible idea at best. War is a lucrative undertaking and will boost the economies on any country taking part, as long as you win of course, and America being the only superpower on the map these days, the economic gains are motivation to move the country in that direction if at all possible.

But to bring this, or any other theory up to Augustus at this time would upset him and maybe push him over the edge into the only place that will assure him of peace eternal. Winston was not ready to lose his new friend just yet, so this and other thoughts on why war is not repugnant to any civilized person would have to wait until he recovered some strength, if he could.

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