May 27, 2013
Remembering Dennis on Memorial Day
A high school girl in a band uniform singing the National Anthem, old Corvettes and Thunderbirds, men in uniforms from various services and decades, motorcycles, a bagpipe corps, the wife of the Governor, decorated floats, families along Main Street in lawn chairs, and everywhere flags: these are the makings of a Memorial Day Parade. Here in Maine, Topsham and Brunswick have a big one each year. My son marches as a member of his Cub Scout Pack. This year he takes a turn carrying the flag.
As a Quaker resident of Topsham, many conflicting emotions wash over me as I march with other parents behind Robbie’s Pack. I see neighbors; I sense pride; I think about the cruelty of war. But mostly I find myself remembering Dennis Hoppough.
Dennis and I grew up together on Forest Hills Road in suburban Rochester, New York. We rode bikes together, played kick the can and pick up baseball. He was an indifferent student, but a good kid and a trustworthy friend. Come high school, we rode the bus together but moved in different circles. Later I learned he had dropped out of college and enlisted. Still later, I learned he had been killed in Vietnam. From time to time I visit the Wall, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., to tell him—to tell markings on a stone wall—I still remember.
The main speaker at today’s ceremony was a veteran who is now Commander of the Maine Army National Guard. He spoke about reverence, aiming some of his remarks at the Scouts, reminding them that Scouts are “reverent.” To be reverent, he said, means you believe in something greater than yourself, and serve that something.
Is this why Dennis went to war? I can scarcely fathom it. I do think he believed in the war when he enlisted, but he was someone who took things he was told as straightforward and truthful. He was not a ‘question authority’ kind of person. When he enlisted, I was fully committed to bringing the troops home. About same time he joined the Marines, I was refusing induction in the U.S. military.
Honoring Dennis, I cannot make myself believe that the sacrifice of his life was for some higher purpose, something greater than himself, to which he was fully committed. What would he say? I wish I could ask him.
Does God ask us to go to war? I do not believe so; quite the contrary. Today’s commemoration wrapped together God and Country in a simple indivisible way. I imagine Dennis accepted that equation. But in remembering and honoring him today I have to refuse that equation. I am grateful for his too short life. On Memorial Day I want to feel that gratitude in an unreserved way. And yet I am still sad and angry that his life was squandered in a war that ought never to be thought about as serving a truly higher purpose. It just cost lives.
On Memorial Day, do I honor Dennis more by forgetting or remembering that our war aims in Vietnam were bogus?