My father Roger E. Tapson, a former United States Army Staff Sergeant and veteran of World War II, died seven years ago and was buried near a small lake in the rolling, pastoral grounds of the Dallas-Ft. Worth National Cemetery alongside thousands of other veterans – their names, as poet Stephen Spender might say, “feted by the waving grass, and by the streamers of white cloud, and whispers of wind in the listening sky, the names of those who…left the vivid air signed with their honor.” It’s exactly the kind of place my dad would have described – without a hint of Oprah-fied, feminized, New Age devaluation of the word – as “spiritual.” It was the way I once heard him describe a still, brisk, early autumn morning on a gorgeously wooded golf course, his favorite place to be.
Spiritual indeed, but not in the same degree or kind as “civilian” burial grounds. Not to diminish the final resting place of anyone interred in the latter; but to stand in a military cemetery among the unadorned, uniform white markers that stretch out in precise rows like an army-in-waiting, is to feel a spiritually heightened quality to your surroundings that demands humility, gratitude, and a more solemn reverence. The “vivid air” of a military cemetery is undeniably suffused with something extra, because it’s not merely a graveyard, but a memorial to qualities that constitute the best of humanity – honor, courage, dignity, service and sacrifice – and to warriors who once embodied them. Their grave markers stand as a challenge to those of us who remain.
Honor, courage, dignity, service, sacrifice – how many of us civilians can say that we commit to embodying those qualities in our daily lives? How many of us can say we are truly tested, body and soul, ever, much less on a daily basis, the way that the men and women of our military are? How many of us can say we are ready and willing to “do what is required,” as Warlord author Ilario Pantano puts it, for our country and our fellow Americans, even at the cost of our lives? Precious few if any, I would guess, and we civilians are all the lesser mortals for it.
And that makes us all the more fortunate that there are those who can and do rise to that challenge, on front lines around the world. It takes a special American to embrace that responsibility and earn a uniform of the United States armed forces, and it takes a special family – warriors too in their own way (“they also serve who only stand and wait,” as John Milton wrote) – to support their loved one from the home front.
I was too young for the Vietnam War draft, and when I did come of age I was much more interested in playing guitar in a rock band than having my hair shaved off and being yelled at by a drill sergeant. Today, when America is engaged in an epic clash with worldwide jihad, in addition to facing threats from thuggish dictators to Central American drug armies to a re-emergent Russia, I’m frustrated and deeply regretful that I never served, and that the only way I can now contribute to the fight is through my writing.
Is the pen mightier than the sword? It sure doesn’t feel like it – it’s pretty obvious which one I’d rather have in a fight – but the pen is what I’m stuck with. Meanwhile I’m grateful and humbled that the men and women of the United States military have the rare and noble qualities it takes to be the sword between me and America’s enemies.
(This originally appeared on Big Hollywood, 6/25/2009)