Over the past months yellow ribbons have sprouted up everywhere, a spontaneous reaction of support for the war, but especially for the soldiers away from home. These ribbons will be a part of history and ongoing tradition.
I am reminded of the photographs of troops going off to fight in the trenches of World War I. When they left for the war and when they came home the train stations and railroad cars were draped in red, white and blue bunting. Soldiers waved from the windows in heroic gestures.It was supposed to be "the last great war," an Armageddon in which 10 million soldiers died and 21 million were wounded.
Weapons of destruction reached new levels of devastation. Rapid firing machine guns mowed down columns of advancing soldiers like cordwood. Newly invented tanks breached trenches like mechanized dragons. In the trenches, a pall of mustard gas ate the skin and lungs in a horror of warfare never experienced before. Soldiers donned eerie rubber gas masks that dehumanized their features, making them look more like insects than men.
And here we are again.
A new generation of tanks has moved and fired, equipped with laser eyes and hydraulic bridges on their backs to span moats of burning oil. The air is black from the soot of wellheads set ablaze.
We have seen the face of war mirrored in the faces of Iraqi soldiers as they emerge from the craters of allied bombardment. The fear in their eyes bears witness to both the physical and emotional devastation of war, and we sense deep compassion for these victims of conscription.
For our own soldiers, yellow ribbons have come to symbolize a new version of hope I believe passes beyond traditional patriotism into a more universal feeling - a passion for harmony. We are tired of war, and this is a way of focusing on its most intimate consequences.
These millions of ribbons emerge from hopscotch history, popularized in a song about a man returning from prison and ambivalent about whether he will be accepted home again.
Will there be a ribbon tied to the oak tree, a prearranged signal that he is welcome, or in its absence will he keep on going?
As the bus approaches town, the tension mounts. Then, out the window he finally sees the tree - and a thousand yellow ribbons.
For many veterans of Vietnam, there were no bands to wave them off to war, no trees of ribbons to welcome them home. For many, in fact, the return home was plagued by a sense of "survival guilt." Why, they asked themselves, was I able to come back when many of my friends did not?
They received little consolation from that anguish.
With all else, we must acknowledge this pain - the unhealed wounds made raw by a new war accompanied by the hope of yellow ribbons.
For those of you who experienced the ambivalent battles of Vietnam, consider those yellow ribbons not only as symbolic of support for those currently away from home, but also as celebration of your own long-belated return.
In Washington, your memorial is not a spire that pierces the sky in a gesture of victory. It is a slice of black stone hewn into the bowels of the Earth and emblazoned with the names of your friends. Theirs was a sacrifice of confusion in a struggle toward basic human dignity beyond the politics of war that must never be forgotten. Your unwarranted pain has been a part of that sacrifice.
So come home, finally, from the sound of helicopters that fill your memory, and the friends who never came home with you. They would not want you to carry the burdens you have borne so long. The yellow ribbons are for you as well. The war is over.
It is time to come home.