Today was Veterans Day. Every Wednesday morning we have a Matins Service, and later a morning program for our seniors who gather. This morning, in honor of Veterans Day, we say a medley of patriotic songs and heard a few stories by veterans who are members of our congregation. I have to say, I was strangely moved by the cheerful Air Force Song, "Off we go/into the wild blue yonder/Climbing high into the sky", especially when one elderly gentleman, a World War II veteran, stood up and remained standing while we sang.
"He was in the Air Force," someone whispered to me.
"I know,"I whispered back. He is a member of my noon Bible story, and has alluded to his service in the Army Air Corp on occasion. He has particularly said, on more than one occasion, that he never thought he would make it to his 22nd birthday.
He told us more of the story today. In fact, I got the feeling that he has been waiting over fifty years to tell his story. He trained and flew B-17s over Germany in 1945. He told us that you had to get 35 missions in before you were done, but hardly anyone made it to 35. He told us about how it felt to know you were expendable, to know every day that there were people who didn't make it back. And he told us a little bit about his mission, too: to "break the will of the German people", as he was told.
"Our job was a dirty job," he told us, and he didn't have to say more.
The war ended after he had flown 17 missions. He didn't go to the South Pacific, because B-17s weren't useful there. After the war, he flew officers over to North Africa, where he would sometimes confess how he felt about the work he had had to do. These were men who had seen ground conflict all over Europe. They told him not to feel guilty. They hated the Germans.
He was in Germany as well, for the Nuremburg trials. He put on the headphones, and heard, over and over, men whose defense was "I was following orders."
"I was following orders, too," he said.
He wondered about the chaplains, and how they did their jobs. He said they never heard scripture readings or sermons about "Loving your enemies," or even "Loving your neighbors." "We were trying to destroy our neighbors," he said. The unspoken question: what happens to faith in times of war? What does it look like? How far does it extend?
Eli Wiesel tells a hasidic tale that asks the question, "When do we know that the night is over and the day has come?"
The answer: when we can see the face of our brother, and know that he is our brother.