It was a brilliant fall day in Limpertsberg, a neighborhood in Luxembourg City. I was a study abroad college student living with a Luxembourg family. The Autumn sun gave everything an intensity of color you only get that time of year. It was a perfect day to go for a ride on my motorcycle.
Actually, my motorcycle was a kind of hybrid scooter/motorcycle. It was German built not long after World War Two, probably from recycled military hardware. It was painted battleship gray with a large bulbous nose and protruding flanks. It had a military presence of sorts. It was my 150cc two stroke panzer**, top speed about 100 kilometers per hour, (60 mph). It was no crotch rocket but it got me around Luxembourg City just fine.
I was headed to the U.S. Military Cemetery which was just a few kilometers outside of the city. I had on my well worn blue jeans, and a WWII surplus army jacket with a cold weather liner. I wore a bright orange helmet with a face shield and a pair of antique leather motorcycle gloves that I had found in the storage compartment under the red leather seat.
I had been living in Luxembourg for two months so I had a vague idea which way to head. I soon saw the first sign for the “Americain Cimetiere”. It was a well known destination for visitors so the way was well marked.
I pulled into the parking area which was completely empty on this weekday morning in October. I parked, pulled off my helmet and quickly put on a knit cap.
I walked first to the grave that stood alone at the head of a multitude of rows of white grave markers. I had heard that General Patton was buried facing all the graves. He had died just months after the end of the war in a car accident in Luxembourg which is why his grave is located there. He was originally buried, at his request, among “his soldiers”. So many visitors had beaten down the grass looking for his grave site that he was moved to the front so he could be easily located and the other graves could be left in peace allowing the perfectly manicured grass between the gravestones to flourish.
I started walking out among the rows of crosses and Stars of David. I began to read the names and the birth and death dates. A quick calculation told me that most of the soldiers buried there were between 19 and 24 years of age. I was 20 at the time. As I randomly walked among the graves, I began to be filled with a feeling that was new to me. The only deaths I had experienced in my short 20 years were my grandparents, yet here I was now, among a sea of white markers with the names of men who were my peers by age. Their lives had ended at or around my current age.
An immense surge of emotion began to swell in me. My breath shortened. My body vibrated. I felt dizzy. I knelt down among these fallen young men and a wail emerged from me. I dissolved into sobs and moans. I was filled with immense sorrow mixed with a powerful feeling of gratitude for these lives cut short by war. My ears throbbed from an elevated heartbeat, like the crash of artillery .
I don’t know how long I remained there before I was able to stand again. The front of my field jacket was wet with my tears. I was trembling. I was keenly aware that in less than two years I would drafted into the military and quite likely sent to fight in Viet Nam.
The year before, in a stroke of political genius, President Richard Nixon had instituted a draft lottery that assigned a number from 1 to 365 to each birth date of draft eligible men.*** I was number 44. The military would then announce up to which number they would reach that year. Men with higher numbers were pretty secure that they would not be called up so many of them stopped protesting the war. I knew I would be drafted as soon as I graduated from college.
I made my way back to my motorcycle and put on my helmet and gloves. As I drove out of the parking lot, I noticed a sign indicating the direction to the German war cemetery. After a moment of hesitation, I pointed my two-wheeled panzer in that direction.
From the moment I walked in, the German Military Cemetery looked noticeably different from the American Cemetery . It was somber, wooded, with many mass graves with a cenotaph in the center etched with the names of the fallen.
The names were German but the ages of the soldiers were the same as in the American Cemetery. These were young men who died because their country said they had to go to war. These were young men whose mothers and fathers surely must have grieved for them just as American parents did.
I believe that it was from this time onward that I began to understand the immense cost of war in human loss and suffering. Up to this time, I still had some romantic notions about war. Right after graduating from high school I visited the Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force recruiters. The Army recruiter would have signed me up on the spot if I hadn’t still been only 17 and needed parental permission. The Air Force office was closed that day, probably because they had more than enough volunteers to meet their monthly quota. The Marine recruiter was out to lunch, which was probably lucky for me, because the Marines were desperate for new recruits at this time. At the Navy office there was a Chief I talked to. He asked me, “Did you think you wanted to get a college education”? My reply was, “Yes”. He then surprised me when he said, “Son, if you want to go to college, go now. If you still want to join the Navy after that, the Navy will be here”.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that Navy Chief might have saved my life. I took his advice and started college that fall. Three years later I was a college junior in Luxembourg, hyper-ventilating and sobbing in a military cemetery.
Looking back on those events over fifty years ago, I can see that they were important in my understanding of the value of life. That Navy Chief, knowing or not, gave me permission to value my life enough that I didn’t have to feel guilty about not immediately rushing off to war. He gave me permission to see I could bring something of value to my country with the maturity and knowledge that an education can impart.
In those cemeteries, because I had chosen to pursue education, I could understand more deeply the human cost of war. I understood that life mattered to those young men and to their grieving families no matter whose “side” they fought for.
Today we are confronted with another reality involving untimely deaths. This is the disproportionate number of Black men and women who die either at the hands of our police, the gangs that roam the ghettos and housing projects, or die from from lack of adequate health care.
If the same conditions existed for all ethnic and racial groups in America, then all of us would be chanting in the streets and painting on Fifth Avenue, “All Lives Matter”. This is not the case. The statement, “Black Lives Matter”, isn’t about only Black lives mattering. It is about a group that has been disproportionately victimized by a dominant culture that fears them and discounts them as ever being equals.
Those who want to say, “All Lives Matter,” are not wrong. All lives do matter. That’s what I understood so poignantly in Luxembourg five decades ago. Except when people say this, they miss the glaring exception to that statement, and in doing so, deliberately or misguidedly, give permission for prejudice and violence against a specific segment of our population. Black lives matter, precisely because all lives matter. War may force us to make an exception to that, but that doesn’t change the value of human life. It just makes us pretend to forget it so we can kill each other. This is what racism does as well.
I would love nothing more than to someday be able to say all lives matter when, in our society, all lives actually do matter. No exceptions. No excuses. In the meantime, Black Lives Matter is important, because until they really do, none of our lives will fully matter.
*Zoe is Greek for “Life”. **Panzer is the German word for battle tank. ***The Lottery system the Nixon administration implemented didn’t stop the ant-war movement but it did reduce the number of young men who participated once they knew they were most likely not going to be drafted. The system assigned random numbers to each day of the year. The order men would be drafted was based on the number assigned to your calendar day of birth from one to 365.
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Be safe. Be well. Love the ones you’re with. Life is short even without a pandemic.