Monday, May 30, 2005

A Place at the Table for America’s Veterans

A little-known tradition among veterans, which honors Vietnam POWS and MIAs, has found a voice in a new children’s picture book by Margot Theis Raven entitled America's White Table. The Vietnam veteran Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association started the tradition. It involves setting a table with white tablecloth (symbolizing purity of heart) and a lit candle (peace). The single place setting has a black napkin, which represents the sorrow of captivity, and the plate holds a slice of lemon and sprinkle of salt, which represent respectively the POW/MIA’s bitter fate and the family’s tears. An empty chair is placed leaning against the table.

Because of the disgraceful, concerted efforts of Hollywood and many segments of the American news media over the years to discredit both Vietnam veterans and the Vietnam War in general, this observance has remained low key, largely within the military and veteran community. But it is about time it gets “mainstreamed”. This is a tradition that should find its way to every dinner table in America.

American culture today glorifies the quests of self: the possession of wealth for one’s own desires, the domination of others, the ascendancy of “cool” as personified by gangsters, rappers and various forms of misogynists. It is a culture which demands battle—either in the streets or the courts—for the smallest perceived slights and wrongs. It is a culture which has never even heard, much less understands the concepts of humility and gratitude. It is a culture which scorns sacrifice, which ridicules generosity and selflessness as a somehow dysfunctional “co-dependent” activity of fools and suckers.

Yet this is exactly what military service has always required. It requires dedication to the mission and above all else, dedication to one’s fellow soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen. It requires unselfish sacrifice, come what may, up to imprisonment (which during the Vietnam War and more recent conflicts has included torture) and the ultimate sacrifice of death. And somehow, despite all the social pressures, our military continues to attract people willing to make such sacrifices, a dedication proven this time on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

These sacrifices, however great, are not limited to the military. Family members lose husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and beloved children—irreplaceable losses which impact loved ones for a lifetime. Our society loses its finest examples of leadership, dedication, sacrifice and talent. Like ripples from a stone tossed into a pond, the impact spreads far and wide throughout society.

I cannot imagine a single family, a single person, who would not be shamed to silence by the presence of an empty place set at the table in honor of POWs, MIAs or those fallen in battle. I cannot imagine anyone not being at least a little humbled in the presence of such a silent testimonial to courage, dedication and sacrifice. I cannot imagine anyone not giving at least a moment’s reflection to their own good fortune at avoiding a similar fate and perhaps even dim recognition at how another’s sacrifice may have indirectly benefited them by keeping our country free.

This is a long overdue addition to our Memorial Day observances. What better way to honor the sacrifices of American servicemen and women than to set an empty place at the table for those who have been lost, taken prisoner or become MIA? What better way for us all to reflect on their sacrifice than to “invite them to OUR dinner table” and remember what they did?

Maybe such an observance would bring us back again to our senses. Maybe it would remind us of our wealth of blessings—of our good fortune at being citizens of the United States of America, a country which stands as a beacon of hope to the world and offers a level of freedom, affluence and opportunity to its citizens heretofore unknown since the dawn of Man.