Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The cost of peace

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
May 28, 2012 -- Updated 0937 GMT (1737 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Memorial Day a holiday for barbecues, fun; but better to reflect on peace
  • He says day raises dichotomy: brutality, which we shun, to bring peace, which we embrace
  • His friend dropped Hiroshima bomb from Enola Gay. His purpose to end war, bring peace
  • Greene: We prefer to think of war's end in famous V-J day kiss photo

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" Sundays during the 5 p.m. (ET) hour.

(CNN) -- Memorial Day weekend has, over the years, turned in large part into something it was not originally intended to be:

Seventy-two hours of barbecues and ballgames, of swimming-pool openings, of high-decibel sales pitches by merchandisers hoping to cash in on the unofficial start of summer.

Which, to a degree, is understandable. The weather is turning warm, there's a holiday feel to the break from work, and the solemnity and grieving for those who gave their lives in the pursuit of peace seems to sometimes get pushed aside.

But it is that pursuit of peace, with all its contradictions and all its sacrifices, that remains the centerpiece of Memorial Day.

And this weekend it might be worth pausing, if only for a moment, to reflect upon a quotation that has variously been attributed to Winston Churchill and to George Orwell:

"We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."

Kids remember parents killed in action
More vets die of suicide than in combat
VA backlog 'plagues' veterans nationwide

Through history, peace in the world has often, of necessity, been attained by the most brutal means available during military conflict. There is a dichotomy intrinsic to wars waged in pursuit of peace -- an uneasy divide between lightness and shadows. Tranquility born of bloodshed; happiness the end result of horror. We don't like to think too much about that, and no wonder. The truth behind it goes against our better nature.

What is the most beloved image celebrating the joyous end of World War II?

It's the Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of the sailor and the nurse embracing in Times Square. Even now, more than 60 years later, that photo makes people weep with glad emotion, makes them grin with across-the-generations exultation. That photo, it is often declared, says it all.

But there would be no photo of the sailor and the nurse were it not for scenes no one likes to see in photographs: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought the awful years of war to a close. It is perfectly explicable that we much prefer bathing ourselves in exuberant images of the first hours of peace, rather than the gruesome images of the last hours of war.

One person who was in fact present during those last hours of World War II was Paul Tibbets. During the many days and evenings I spent with him during the final years of his life, there were occasions when the conversation would turn to that photo of the sailor and the nurse. Sometimes, when we were traveling together and he would be attending a military reunion, someone would approach him with a copy of the photo.

Paul would never say anything. He'd look over at me and merely raise his eyebrows, almost imperceptibly. He wasn't the photographer, but Eisenstaedt would have had nothing to photograph were it not for him.

He was the man -- the military aviator -- assigned by the United States government to put together, in utter secrecy, the unit that would carry out the atomic raids on Japan. When the day came, he didn't delegate; he flew the B-29 named Enola Gay -- his mother's name -- to Hiroshima with one goal in mind: to make the war stop. To let the soldiers, sailors, aviators and Marines go home at last, to rejoin their families or start new families, to somehow, after all the suffering and all the heartbreak, find peace.

Of course the sailor and the nurse are the preferred visual representation of victory. What Paul Tibbets, navigator Dutch Van Kirk, bombardier Tom Ferebee and their crew were asked to do over the skies of Japan is something that is difficult for many people to think about; it's much more pleasant to smile at the sight of the kiss in New York.

Peace is the sun-dappled result, but getting there can be a path of darkness upon darkness. Which is why, on Memorial Day weekend, it is probably reasonable that some people reflexively turn away from thoughts of battlefields and death. The people who turn away are generally not the ones whose family members have in wartime trod that dark and lonely path.

On the occasions through the centuries when long wars have come to an end, many newspapers have chosen to go with the most glorious single-word, all-capital-letters headline of all:

PEACE!

Is there a word in the English language that is more welcome, more highly cherished? That is more likely to be greeted with exhilaration and prayerful relief by all who see it? Nearly every desire a person, or a nation, can have is embodied in that single syllable.

All the lightness and all the shadows, all the wars waged at terrible costs, all in pursuit of peace. To get to such a state of harmony has never been a peaceful journey.

Which is why the word is so beautiful, so yearned for:

Because it sounds so simple while remaining so rare.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
Ruth Ben-Ghiat says WWI enshrined the enduring notion that words cannot adequately express the experience of combat -- that the veteran will often remain silent about the trauma of war.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 2227 GMT (0627 HKT)
Obama's Asia trip is his first chance since the midterms to show the power of presidency, Michael Green says.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
Frida Ghitis asks why President Obama has written another letter to Iran's Supreme Leader about the nuclear deal.
ADVERTISEMENT