President Kennedy, himself a World War II naval hero, once said, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind…War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” Whether we have put an to war remains to be seen, but the recent obituaries of two very different men, Garry Davis and Colonel George “Bud” Day, suggest that distant day has arrived when objector and warrior enjoy equal reputation.
Last month, the nation’s major newspapers carried the obituary of the 91 year-old Mr. Davis, a long-ago child of privilege and erstwhile Broadway song-and-dance man. He was a bomber pilot in World War II and afterward his life took a different turn. He became a fervent pacifist and the dean of the One World Movement. Appointing himself World Citizen No. 1, he set out to run for “president of the world” and founded the World Government of World Citizens, an organization he sought legitimacy for by issuing passports and quasi-official documents. The New York Times called him “a man of no nation” who envisioned “one world of no war”. It deemed him significant enough for the rarified Page One obituary.
Compare that with the obituary that ran around the same time of 89 year-old Colonel Day, a veteran of three wars, among the most highly decorated Americans of the 20th Century. Included in his distinctions was the country’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor; there are currently only 78 living Medal of Honor recipients.
In 1967, Colonel Day, a military pilot, was shot down over North Vietnam, captured and tortured before fleeing from his enemy captors. He was the only American ever to escape from North Vietnam. Unfortunately before he could reach safety he was recaptured and transferred to the infamous North Vietnamese prison facility, the Hanoi Hilton. Along with his fellow captives, including a young John McCain, he underwent brutal treatment for over five years. Following Colonel Day’s recent death, Senator McCain went on the floor of the Senate and eulogized him by saying, “He was the bravest man I ever knew, and I knew more than a few”.
Colonel Day’s obituary did not receive nearly the prominence as that of Mr. Davis. In the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, he received little more than half as much space. In the New York Times, although the obituaries ran on the same day, the piece on the soldier was far shorter and ran below the fold on an inner page in contrast to the pacifist’s extended front page treatment.
There is, of course, a message here. Entrusted with the task of setting down the final record on the worth of a person’s life, the obituary can be a tool of considerable power. Obituaries are not necessarily a simple death notice or objective news story. They can be a mirror of the societal trends that President Kennedy alluded to. In this particular case, greater value was placed on Mr. Davis, the pacifist, than on Colonel Day, the military man. This was likely a demographic assessment of what was perceived to be of interest to the overwhelming majority of readers.
On one level this makes sense; our common values dictate that peace is preferable to war. This is a good thing. Mr. Davis certainly deserves our interest and in fairness, he served in the military which is what convinced him to become a pacifist.
But something is lost in this equation. Colonel Day should not receive the short shrift. To glorify his accomplishments, and his sacrifices, is not the same as glorifying war. As a citizen-soldier, he embodied the best aspects of our country’s tradition - courage, valor, and patriotism. Contrary to some opinions, today’s age is no different than those past and those particular virtues are probably as common today as they ever were. But certainly public acknowledgement of them is not, especially in news cycles where the Kardashians, Anthony Wiener, and Alex Rodriguez receive far more attention than the 150th anniversary of America’s most important battle, Gettysburg,
There is another societal factor at work here. The military draft ended 40 years ago. Military veterans now constitute a small and continually shrinking percentage of the American population. In 1977, 80 percent of the 535 combined members of the two houses of Congress served in the military. Today that number is 19 percent. Only about 13 percent of all Americans are veterans, the majority of whom are middle aged or older. The under emphasis of Colonel Day’s heroism might be due in part to the writers’ (and editors’) own lack of military background, since obituary writers, like most writers, rate what is important in life by viewing it through the prism of personal experience.
Regardless of President Kennedy’s sentiments, there is a tragic quality to how the newspapers handled the deaths of Garry Davis and Colonel Day. Yes, peace is preferable to war, but without the valor and sacrifice of men like Bud Day, the philosophy Garry Davis dreamt of would not be possible.
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