If there is a sin superior to every other, it is that of willful and offensive war. Most other sins are circumscribed within narrow limits…but he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.

-Thomas Paine, The Crisis Number V (1778)


I will not share in the jingoism and nationalism exhibited by others on days like today. I will sing no patriotic songs. I will share no banal images celebrating our military. I will not cover my home in flags. This is a day of remembrance, of mourning, and of healing. On Memorial Day we remember the costs and evils of war, and how very precious is peace. While our warmongering politicians barrel ahead with bellicose threats of aggression, we honor those lost in battle and the families who will never again see their loved ones.

But Memorial Day isn’t just to remember the fallen. We also remember the often-overlooked survivors who, though they were able to return home, lost parts of themselves in the depths. These wounded souls must carry on each day, coping with memories of things that “should never happen under God” – memories those of us who have not seen war can never understand or even imagine. They too died in a fashion on the battlefield, for they are no longer the same person who left home. A recent study determined that an average of 20 US veterans die from suicide each day, many from the inability to cope with their traumatic experiences. This period of endless war and its long-term effects on our society will truly be a dark blot on our nation’s story.

Every life lost to war is a life cut short; a bright light of potential snuffed out. Someone’s father, someone’s sister, someone’s child. We may take pride that such people lived, but to celebrate such sacrifice is shameful. Honor them. Honor them not with hollow words and meaningless flag waving, but by striving to make war a distant memory. Honor them by reversing the tide of interventionism and militarism that has taken hold of our society and our government, mocking their precious sacrifice. Honor them by remembering the value of life, and recognizing that every drop of blood spilled in aggression is an unforgivable sin.

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

-Jack London

My grandfather and I, dwarfed by J611 in the early 1990s

My grandfather and I, dwarfed by J611 in the early 1990s

Yesterday I made my way up to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC for their Sendoff Celebration for the Virginia Museum of Transportation’s N&W Class J 611. Since May 2014, the 611 has been at Spencer, undergoing its much anticipated restoration after twenty long years in hibernation.

For someone like me who grew up enamored with this locomotive, this was a fantastic day. And for the past year there has been something immensely satisfying about her being restored at Spencer Shops, where I spent so much of my childhood.

What a joy that scenes like this will once again be a reality:

N&W J 611's builder's plate

N&W J 611’s builder’s plate

Learn more about the N&W J611 and the Fire Up 611 campaign

Donate to the Fire Up 611 campaign

In closing the back cover of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book five, A Dance with Dragons, this past week, I have now “binge read” four series of novels. (Yes, I know A Song of Ice and Fire is not yet a complete series, but work with me here.) Of those, A Song of Ice and Fire has felt the most like a marathon run. If you’re familiar with the books, I’m sure you’ll understand why: the breadth of the lore and world of Westeros (and Esos) and the sheer volume of literature is simply overwhelming. Combine that with the famed emotional turmoil of Martin’s writing, and you have quite the run ahead of you. And yet, there’s some twisted, masochistic element in it because you find yourself drawn in and you can’t help but keep reading.

And while I’m slightly perturbed that I now must wait however long it takes for book six, The Winds of Winter, to be published and find out what happens next (and only the Seven know how long for book seven…), I’m also thankful for a breather. I don’t read series very often, so I consider it quite the feat for over half of my very first 8,000-page year to be technically the same story.

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It looks like 2014 is to set a solid personal record for the number of pages I have read. Chalk it up to reading all seven books of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and (so far) the first four books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series this year. I’m now on A Song of Ice and Fire book five (A Dance with Dragons), which will bring me firmly past 8000 pages for this year. For some this might not be that big of a deal, but as a slow reader, I’m quite happy. And yet, somehow my “to read” list hasn’t shrunk.

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It’s been roughly half a decade since my last tour with a choir, and this year my return to the grand adventure was set in the area of our nation’s capital. Over the course of two days, we spent about six hours roaming the city on free time. I was very happy to finally mark a couple spots in Washington off my list of places to see, but at the same time I couldn’t help but take serious notice of the monster surrounding me. I truly do not wish to become one of those who politicize every aspect of life, but the message and atmosphere in DC is so overwhelming it cannot simply be ignored. I came away from Washington not with a sense of awe or pride in our nation, but rather with great sadness.

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In honor of the 65th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, below is an excerpt from Robert Leckie’s memoir, Helmet for My Pillow:

I lay in the hospital ward and the Sign of the Mushroom rose over the world.

I lay in a hospital for the tenth time since I had chosen to enter the Marines. My comrades and I had suffered in our persons as the world had suffered in her peoples since the Nazi swastika had clasped the Japanese rising sun in spidery embrace—the whole world, racked for six years like a giant organism; and now the Sign of the Mushroom was rising over it.

The ward in Newton D. Baker Army Hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia, was quiet—shocked, still. The impersonal radio voice said, “America has just dropped the first atomic bomb in history on the major Japanese city of Hiroshima. The city has been destroyed.”

Monster cloud rising over Hiroshima, over the world—monstrous, mushrooming thing, sign of our age, symbol of our sin: growth; bigness, speed: grow, grow, grow—grow in a cancer, enlarge a factory, swell a city, balloon our bellies, speed life, fly to the moon, burst a bomb, shatter a people—explode the world.

So it rose and I shrank in my cot, I who had cringed before the body-squeezing blast of a five-hundred-pound bomb, hearing now this strange cold incomprehensible jargon of the megaton. Someone had sinned against life, and I felt it in my very person.

But then I, too, sinned. Suddenly, secretly, covertly—I rejoiced. For as I lay in that hospital, I had faced the bleak prospect of returning to the Pacific and the war and the law of averages. But now, I knew, the Japanese would have to lay down their arms. The war was over. I had survived. Like a man wielding a submachine gun to defend himself against an unarmed body, I had survived. So I rejoiced.

A few days later, the war did end, and there was a victory celebration in Martinsburg. The townspeople walked and rode around the square twice and then everyone went home. A slender Chinese gentleman, noticing my green uniform among the khaki, my ribbons and my shoulder patch, perhaps concluding from these that I had fought the Japanese, came up to me out of the crowd as I stood before the beer hall, and said, “Thank you.” Then he walked away. That was victory, that was jubilation—under the Sign of the Mushroom. I returned to the hospital, stark sober. In a few weeks, I was a civilian.

…[Sacrifice] is enough for all, for it is sacrifice—the suffering of those who lived, the immolation of those who died—that must now be placed in the scales of God’s justice that began to tip so awkwardly against us when the mushroom rose over the world. It is to sacrifice that men go to war. They do not go to kill, they go to be killed, to risk their flesh, to insert their precious persons in the path of destruction.

…That is why women weep when their men go off to war. They do not weep for their victims, they weep for them as Victim. That is why, with the immemorial insight of mankind, there are gay songs and colorful bands to send them off—to fortify their failing hearts, not to quicken their lust for blood. That is why there are no glorious living, but only glorious dead. Heroes turn traitor, warriors age and grow soft—but a victim is changeless, sacrifice is eternal.

And now to that Victim whose Sign rose above the world two thousand years ago, to be menaced now by that other sign now rising, I say a prayer of contrition. I, whom you have seen as irreverent and irreligious, now pray in the name of Chuckler and Hoosier and Runner, in the name of Smoothface, Gentleman, Amish and Oakstump, Ivy-League and Big-Picture, in the name of all those who suffered in the jungles and on the beaches, from Anzio to Normandy—and in the name of the immolated: of Texan, Rutherford, Chicken, Loudmouth, of the Artist and White-Man, Souvenirs and Racehorse, Dreadnought and Commando—of all these and others, dear Father, forgive us for that awful cloud.”

— Robert Leckie, “Epilogue,” Helmet for My Pillow

8/6/2015: Edited and republished for the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima’s destruction.