The road from Viterbo to Bolsena passes through a lovely landscape, about an hour north of Rome. In early April the trees are leafing out. The foliage is a myriad collection of greens of every hue. The air is clean and sweet. As the road twists and turns, there are broad views off to the left of Lake Bolsena, glimmering blue under the spring sun.
A tiny parking lot appears off to the side of the road. It has barely room for two small cars, with a stone wall into which are carved the words “Bolsena War Cemetery- 1945”. No cemetery is in sight however, but only a long stone path descending through olive trees and a large field that is already in need of mowing.
In June, 1944 Rome fell to the Allies. German forces pulled back to the north and a large tank battle ensued not far from this place. This lovely field and olive grove are adjacent to the site of British Field Marshal Harold Alexander’s headquarters. Eventually the fighting moved on but this ground remained occupied, now by the bodies of Allied soldiers and airmen who died both near here and in other parts of Italy. The British Commonwealth Graves Commission meticulously maintains the cemetery to this day.
The practice of the Commission was to give families an opportunity to add an inscription at the lower end of each headstone. I can image the family in England or South Africa (where many of the soldiers were from) gathered around the table to find the 10 or 20 words that would mark the graves of loved ones never to be seen again. Each stone tells a story, like haiku in its brevity.
Later in the day I passed through the hill town of Grotte di Castro. It sits well back from Lake Bolsena. It is a grim place. The stone is entirely monochromatic – a very dull and dead gray. This is not a place that is often visited by tourists. It is very clean and well maintained but it is empty and silent.
At the center sits the church of S. Pietro Apostolo, also grey and dull on the outside. But stepping through the door, it is beautifully colorful and rich in painting and statuary.
And on the left side sit the remains of the martyred Saint Faustina. I am not certain of her history. I can find nothing written. But I do know she was a martyr and that this church in remote Italy continues to honor her. She is given a place of reverence and remembered on holidays and in festivals in this tiny town. Her sacrifice is not to be forgotten, ever.
All of which has got me thinking as I drive “home” from Bolsena. I have had two opportunities today to see how a society honors those who make great sacrifice for some greater good. This is not only how we respect that sacrifices made in the past, but it is also part of an important promise that we make to those who we will ask to make sacrifices in the future. “We will remember you. We will honor you. We will respect your sacrifice”. It is one of the most important bonds and rituals that we can see in every society tracing back to the earliest recorded history.
So what does it say about our society in the United States that we are giving serious consideration to electing as president a man who expresses the deepest contempt for sacrifice?
I have disagreed with John McCain on many issues for decades. I didn’t vote for him when he sought office. I thought the Viet Nam war was a terrible mistake. But I have been ever mindful that McCain remained imprisoned under torture for more than five years. He could have ended that at any time by turning against his country. He suffered permanent injury as a result. He never relented. I may disagree with him (often but not always) but I have always honored him and until recently assumed that was the consensus within the country.
What troubles me more than the hateful words spoken by one man is the fact that this candidate is revered by millions of followers. What does that say about us as a nation? If elected, how does he, or we as a body politic at large, call upon others to sacrifice and endure the worst of experiences for the greater good of society, knowing that the reward is contempt?
To my mind this is not a question of politics, of conservatives vs. liberals. It goes far deeper than that. I fear we are losing our adherence to the most basic values that bind us together as a country -- that we are about to jettison a common, bottom line notion of what is decent and acceptable. This has happened in other societies in the past. It is almost always a prelude to disaster.