What does the sign say?


James Carroll quoted Wilfred Owen’s poem in his column in today’s Boston Globe.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

A week after writing this, Owen was dead on the battlefield of World War I.

Carroll’s column in the Globe today tells of Robert Gates’ (Secretary of Defense) speech in which he takes responsibility for the lives of the young in his charge: “I feel personally responsible for each and every one of you, as if you were my own sons and daughters.” Carroll says that the speech is extraordinary “for its frank acknowledgement that America’s elders have consistently failed the nation’s sons and daughters in sending them off to war.” Gates says that our war efforts since Vietnam have been perfectly wrong. (Many would include Vietnam in America’s record of getting it wrong.)

By all means read Carroll’s column and read Gate’s speech. They are direction signs for our military in this century. But I wonder if Carroll understood Gates’ speech or was he using it to make a separate point, one not found in the speech. I think what Gates decries is not the strategy of sending our young to war but the tactics used once we do. He “takes responsibility” for the young solders he was speaking to at the very tail end of the speech. I wonder if he deeply feels the responsibility he expressed. Or was he saying what he felt he must say on such an occasion in such a speech. I hope he reads James Carroll’s column today and reflects on what the story of Abraham and Isaac implies. Maybe he’ll read Wilfred Owen’s poem too — I doubt it but one can hope.

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