Every year come spring I think of weddings, and the Allied invasion of Europe. Maybe it’s because every year a pair of my friends gets married the week of D-Day. Of course, war being almost as enduring a feature of human civilization as marriage, every day is the anniversary of more than one massacre, invasion or surrender. And Eisenhower and the recently engaged think alike. June, they say, we’ll do it in June.
On the real D-Day I was but a gleam in my grandfather’s eye while he waited with the rest of his unit to invade Europe. “Invade” is a strong word for what they did, since his unit didn’t land in Normandy until D-Day plus 15. My grandfather served in a special unit of accountants, and the ranks of the 53rd Finance were not among the first penciled on the map with arrows pointing toward beaches named for a Nebraskan city and a Western state. Less fortunate soldiers who had not earned accounting degrees before they were drafted died taking those bloody beaches, while one quarter of my DNA was safe in England, bringing up the rear and keeping the books.
My grandfather never fired his gun. On June 21, 1944, he landed in Normandy, and on November 5, 1945, he married my grandmother in the Bronx. In between he saw it all, dutifully paying the troops for their trouble, their limbs, and their lives.
I once asked him why the troops had to be paid in the midst of an invasion, why they couldn’t be paid a lump sum when it was all over. My grandmother answered for him, as she often did.
“So they could go to the whores,” she said.
So my grandfather took no beaches. He paid the soldiers who survived the taking of the beaches, so they could go to the whores before they died trying to take the rest of Europe. He died of old age, after 63 years of marriage, a much longer war.
In these more recent Junes, I, too, take beaches, up and down the East Coast. When called upon, I march in uniform, down aisles if not over hills, if not for country then most certainly for love.
My confusion of weddings and wars really began with Ellen, when I served as her maid of honor in the spring of 2006. Maybe it’s because Ellen’s father was in the infantry in World War II. Maybe it’s because her husband Oliver’s family owns a small cannon left over from the Revolutionary War that they drunkenly fire on special occasions. Or maybe it’s because I spent the week after their wedding laid up with a summer cold, watching Band of Brothers, an HBO miniseries that dramatizes the story of the 101st Airborne, some of the first paratroopers to land behind enemy lines on D-Day. Somehow, I came to irrevocably confuse these two seaside June events until they merged in my mind into a single uniformed march.
This is not to say that the wedding of my friends Ellen and Oliver was exactly like the Allied advance. There are certainly many differences between these two important historical events. During the Allied advance there were no artichoke fritters, and at the wedding of Ellen and Oliver there was no shrapnel.
During the Allied advance there were no artichoke fritters. But at the wedding, as in the 101st Airborne, I had a mission, a commander, a uniform and a rank. I trusted my commander and I trusted my fellow bridesmaids, and I felt that I would do anything necessary to achieve our objective.
My rank was made visible by clear insignia. All of the bridesmaids had been required to purchase dresses that included bow bands, bands of fabric at the waist secured by a decorative bow. All the other bridesmaids had burnt sienna bow bands to match our burnt sienna dresses, but only we commanders of the bridesmaid brigade—the maid and matron of honor—had pomegranate bow bands, which stood out against our burnt sienna dresses.
I felt a distinct pride in my special bow band. I found it easier to lead when marked as a leader. The other bridesmaids looked to us, and we, in turn, looked to our supreme leader, the bride herself.
The bride herself was no slouch in the precision department. She was highly organized and left little to chance. The week before the event, the wedding party received an email containing what is best described as the Field Manual to the Wedding of Ellen and Oliver, with detailed marching instructions for how we were to deliver the bride to her groom.
The massing point for our mission was a large tree. Our objective was the chuppah. There was a birdhouse in between we would use as a landmark. The email described in detail the movement of our troops from the tree to the chuppah. I studied these instructions carefully and committed them to memory.
Of course, as in many strategic campaigns, there was a gap between the plan as it was presented to us and the adaptations we were forced to make in the field. It rained buckets the day of the wedding, and the plan changed as the mission unfolded. Still, while the route to our objective changed, my duties were clear, and I surpassed my own expectations of myself in performing them. In keeping with the promises of many an Army-recruitment commercial, I acquired valuable skills that would translate to the rest of my life. Memorizing a series of steps and marking them out in a rehearsal is one thing, but carrying out those steps—with live ammunition, or in our case, real roses, with the reverberations of a string quartet in your ears and the flicker of digital flashes in your eyes—is quite another.
There was a chaplain, and she spoke to us on the eve of our mission, advising us that if one of us should fall, she should hold on to the woman next to her. She was the chaplain of the bride’s and my alma mater, and she was talking about bridesmaids in heels feeling faint in the summer heat, not soldiers in combat dropping leaden to the ground with bullets in their vital organs, but she did tell us that if one of us felt the weight of a fellow bow-banded bridesmaid begin to fall upon our own, we should bear her weight along with ours as brothers in arms and sisters in silk shantung have done for centuries.
The soldier often speaks of his intimate relationship to his gun, his tank, his sword. I felt this way about The Dress. The day was about Ellen and Oliver and their love and their life together, but it was also about The Dress. I found out later, watching Rome, yet another HBO series, that the centurions of ancient Rome kept their military outfits on dummies when they removed them between battles. In this way the soldier’s breastplate, scabbard, and helmet stood watch over him while he slept. Even when he was not being a soldier, his soldier self was in the room with him.
It was also this way with The Dress. The Dress was like another person, and also like a body. There was a kind of Holy Trinity thing going on. There was Ellen, The Dress and The Bride. The Bride was an emanation of Ellen and The Dress. Neither The Dress nor Ellen was Bride until Ellen and The Dress were united. There was something holy, and wholly unnerving, about being in its presence.
She put it on and we took pictures. She took it off and we sat quietly in a hotel room while it hung above us, seeming to levitate. It was at this point lightly raining and we had to get the dress safely to what I now knew to call the “ceremony site.” Under my command, the bridesmaids stole a sheet from the hotel linen cart. We wrapped the dress like a fallen comrade and laid it gently in the trunk of the limo like a hostage.
The free men of the world march together toward victory, and the lovers are bound until death do they part. When we got to the ceremony site, it was I who dressed the bride as if for battle. It was I who unwrapped the veil and, as we held our collective breath, stabbed its bejeweled pins into the bride’s complicated hairdo. It was I who later gathered the wilted flowers from her hair like spent bullet casings and replaced them with fresh ones from the little cup the hairdresser had given me. It was the bride’s sister and I, who, as our pomegranate bow bands dictated we should, crawled under the bride’s dress between ceremony and reception and bustled it. For a brief period I found myself inside a heavy white tent with one other woman and the bride’s bethonged bottom, the underside of her dress our temporary foxhole. Such are the strange intimacies of weddings and wars alike.
I did not have a weapon, but I had a bouquet, and I held it firmly as I marched. There was no enemy lurking in the trees, but there was a white Carolina Herrera duchesse silk dress, and there was rain and there was mud, and on my watch, never the twain did meet.
For someone who has mixed and complicated feelings about both weddings and wars, I sure do cry a lot when I see either of these events set to music. I subscribe to vast and intricate ideologies devoted to debunking the necessity of state violence and offending the laws of organized religion, of which war and marriage are tremendous and respective culprits. Still, a wedding and a war movie are equally likely to water my eyes. It’s the poetry of the thing that gets me every time.
I usually start tearing up when the marching starts. Marching to music affects me very deeply. Second to poetry I enjoy pomp and circumstance.
At weddings, by the time the vows are read I might be quietly sobbing. The gravity and importance of the occasion are very touching, and I’ve only attended the weddings of close friends I love very much, but it’s the words themselves that give me the chills. I like the simplest iteration of the marriage vows, the one that says. “I, (Bride/Groom), take you, (Groom/Bride), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honor and cherish; until death do us part.”
I prefer “until death do us part,” to “as long as we both shall live.” It’s just better writing—tighter sentence, clearer image. You can’t go wrong with a vow until death. It’s somehow better than eternity, because eternity never ends, and things that never end are not as dramatic as things that do, particularly life, which ends, as the vow points out, with death.
There are versions with the words “in times of plenty and times of want,” and while that has a nice ring, “richer” and “poorer” are clearer and more evocative and sonically compatible with their twinned suffixes. I’ve heard some nice renditions of “laugh with you and cry with you” and “comfort you in times of loss,” which are also nice, but I think “good times and bad” pretty much covers everything. “Forsaking all others” is a cool addition, or some mention of “faithful love,” though directly mentioning monogamy somehow draws attention to the possibility—the statistical likelihood, even—of adultery. I’d rather hear the simple, present truth of “I want you” than the foreboding and breakable promise, “I won’t go with anyone else.”
One of the few other things to move me in quite this way is Eisenhower’s speech to the troops on the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. “Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!” it exhorts:
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle hardened. He will fight savagely. But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41…
The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
SIGNED: Dwight D. Eisenhower
How can this be? How can these words of military propaganda touch me so deeply? I am opposed to war, the military, presidents in general and Republican ones in particular, and I hate the Eisenhower Interstate Highway Act of 1957 with a particular vehemence for its causes (the intended movement of nuclear missiles) and effects (strip malls, the megalopolization of the eastern seaboard, the loss of any hope for a truly national rail system and the sealing of the fate of the continent to car culture). But: “The eyes of the world are upon you!” “The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!” It might be bullshit and it’s certainly propaganda, but it’s poetry, too. The free men of the world march together toward victory, and the lovers are bound until death do they part—these are the things I would prefer to believe, if the poetry’s good enough to delude me.
And they did it, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. My grandfather, writing his checks and not firing his gun, and Ellen’s father, running through the fields, as Ellen’s mother once recounted his description, not understanding why none of the whizzing bullets ever hit him, and by virtue of that inexplicable and random fact living to father five children. Over their long march they did destroy the German war machine, and they did eliminate Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe.
With your soundtrack and your slow-mo you tell us that this was good, and it had to be done, and it was the only way.Sure, Nazi tyranny was replaced with communist tyranny in some places and capitalist tyranny in others, and the clash between communist tyranny and capitalist tyranny brought the tyranny of war to many other places. And it wasn’t as honorable as Tom Brokaw likes to pretend, and the Americans knew about the camps and didn’t care about the Jews, and the Jews turned right around and encircled the Palestinians with the very same barbed wire they themselves had just escaped. But the Nazis, they ate the cyanide in the bunkers, they surrendered their weapons. And the Nazis were definitely bad, and when it was over they were definitely defeated, and the idea that an evil empire could be completely defeated and that any cause could be so just is as appealing to me as that of eternal love. As for security for ourselves in a free world, well, that wouldn’t be very good for the military-industrial complex Ike himself named, and we fight on, but even less poetically.
Even my grandparents—dysfunctional, insane, filled as much with rage as any kind of cherishing tenderness—they did it, too. They made it from the altar to the cemetery. In the end, death parted them. At my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother tried to fling herself into the grave.
Isn’t it strange how much carnage can follow a few pretty words? After Eisenhower issued that well-written speech, thousands of young men were blown to bits before they could go to any whores or have any weddings. Millions of men, women, and children were being starved, firebombed, gassed, and burned, and millions more have been since. Isn’t it strange that such beautiful language can be pulled like a veil across such horrific suffering?
We humans bring suffering upon ourselves in so many ways; we can suffer at the hands of one other person just because we happen to love them, and we can suffer as our flesh is torn by machines designed to tear and burn it because someone has made a speech that arbitrarily connects the slaughter of millions with the agendas of a comparative few. But we can wrap it in poetry and get drunk afterward and say it isn’t all for naught. In the words of another great valorizer of another Great War, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
I am embarrassed to be so susceptible to the fervent patriotic propaganda of America’s unknighted pie-eyed sons Hanks and Spielberg, executive producers of Band of Brothers. I am embarrassed to be so susceptible to the fervent propaganda of love. Every time I fall in love it seems all the songs and all the poems are about us. Then when it or I have gone away it seems that all the songs and poems are about me.
My head fights with my heart about these things. My head says, “All war is meaningless. It is the art we make about war that confers meaning upon it. The glorification of war in poetry, song and cinema has existed for millennia to justify the violent impulses and insatiable greed of the powerful, and to justify and mythologize the senseless death and suffering these greedy impulses wreak.” My head screams, “You, Tom Hanks, and you, Steven Spielberg, persist in using your formidable financial means to paint a reductive picture of human experience that lives only in the fantasy life of a sheltered American boy who has never been to war. You faithfully recreate the horrors of war on camera and you set it all to uplifting music that was not playing at the original scenes of these crimes. With your soundtrack and your slow-mo you tell us in no uncertain terms that this was good, and it had to be done, and it was the only way, and the world is better for it. You offer oversimplified answers that only leave me with more questions, such as whether anything resembling good or righteousness exists at all in a world capable of producing a Hitler, a Manhattan Project, a Dresden, a Holocaust, and a cable network with the resources to bring them all to life over and over again.”
My head says all of these things, but my heart says something else. It says, “I would do what was necessary. I would not cower in a ditch if my friends were getting blown up.” It yearns to sacrifice myself to something greater, it yearns for there to be something worth sacrificing myself to. It harbors girlish dreams of white dresses and charming princes, and boyish dreams of glory and heroism. It is a hermaphroditic heart that dreams of weddings and wars and other things that look more fun on television than they are in real life, that are only given meaning by well-written poetry and good music and without these key elements would only be a bunch of people running around a field, either dancing drunkenly or killing each other but in both cases spending too much money on it.
Instead we pretend that weddings make families of lovers and wars make brothers of soldiers. Both are part of the fantasy that our bonds to one another can be deepened and sanctified by vow or violence until they make their way into our blood, and that we will die neither alone nor in vain.
As fascinated as I am with the idea that there is something that could overpower the oppressive instinct we call the will to live, I know I would make a terrible soldier, cowardly and disobedient. I want more than anything to stay alive and least of all to follow orders. But then I think of how much I love my friends, and I know I would never allow them to run toward certain death while I cowered in a ditch. I would pull them into the ditch with me where at least we could wait to die together, and in our foxhole just as in marriage, the unbearable possibility of imminent death would be just a little more bearable if we were not alone.