One of the more than 58,000 (count ‘em) names on the War Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans in Washington, D.C., is Barry Armstrong. We weren’t close, but we did play sandlot baseball together at the Little League field in Read Park in Freeport, Illinois. Boys who play pick-up games together are forever joined and so, when I saw Barry’s name on the Memorial, I was stirred far more deeply than I anticipated. “What would have become of him?” It hurt, and I hardly knew him. We took our kids to see the Memorial, not knowing the sort of life-long impact it would have on each of us. For me, it has become the story of Barry Armstrong, and we only played sandlot together. He was older than me, some three years, and he is the only boy I knew from Freeport that died in Vietnam.
That is why the story of Karen Spears Zacharias, told beautifully in Hero Mama, is so important for all of us to read: the one she lost was her Daddy, and the death of Sgt. David Spears almost wrecked what survived of his family. In some ways, it did wreck her family. Scars never go away but, when shrapnel tears apart your Daddy’s body in the morning rain and no one is quite sure what happened, and when that Daddy is the pillar holding everyone up and the glue holding everything together, the shrapnel wounds tear into everyone in the family.
Often the family members weren’t even sure what was going on inside the wreck that was the Spears family. On the 20th Anniversary of the Wall every name was read aloud, and it took four days. At 10:30pm, in the rain, Karen walked across the platform, said, “And my father – you were a hero to me long before Vietnam – David Paul Spears” (325). But, when she walked away with her friend Kathy, she saw to her left a group of South Vietnamese soldiers in uniform, dressed in tan uniforms and holding flags. She began to weep, and she wept for an entire day: “I was weeping over the humility and honor of those men, and for the great losses both our nations had suffered” (326).
Many Americans opposed the Vietnam Conflict (it was never officially identified as a War) and the opposition pressed the shrapnel wounds deeper into the heart of the Spears family, so when Karen asked her boss at the newspaper where she was a journalist for a vacation to go to Vietnam to visit the site where her Daddy died, she found his rejection and his words cold and callous. “I’m not interested in any stories about children returning to the battlefields where their fathers died, and I don’t think our readers will be, either…. If you make this trip to Vietnam, we will consider it job abandonment” (326). Karen went, she lost her job, her husband supported her, and mother dropped in a prayer that this one she loved would come back.
I am a Christian pacifist. I don’t pretend to know if it is good international policy, but as a theologian who has spent more than two decades studying Jesus and his teachings, and doing what I can to work out his principles in our world, I can’t for the life of me understand why more Christians are pacifists. And I can give all the reasons – from cruciform existence to “Caesar and God”, but Hero Mama deepened an argument I’ve never considered central to the debate. The argument is this: consider what happens to a family when a Daddy dies in the war.
We were all disgusted when Timothy McVeigh called the many children who died in Oklahoma “collateral damage.” This is typical military rhetoric for the “casualties of war” – and it is but another example of the rhetoric used to mitigate the disaster of taking the life of another human being, made as an Eikon of God.
Hero Mama is not about war and how to approach whether we should or should not enter into wars. This is powerful, engaging, soul-searching and heart-finding memoir of what happens when a Daddy is torn from a family. I can’t tell you how much this book impressed me.