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On a Day of Drums and Bugles

It’s easy to ignore the military when there’s no war going on.

No one’s pounding ashore anywhere or streaking across a desert or slogging through a jungle.

There are no little pennants with stars on them hanging in anyone’s windows or yellow ribbons tied around tree trunks in somebody’s frontyard.

The only other time you even think about the military is when the question of gays in uniform comes up or when some jerk gropes a woman in his command, and then it’s either a case of controversy or dishonor.

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I’m not mourning a lack of news on the military front, by the way. Our history is too full of pain and outrage to want any of it back. No more pictures of bodies in the street, please. No more distant thunder.

Because of the prevailing attitude, when I heard that Harrold Weinberger had died, I was satisfied at first to let it be handled in a routine obituary.

Weinberger, Harrold, 97. A retired U.S. Marine. Thursday in Los Angeles of natural causes.

But then I got to thinking. Here was a man who had served in both world wars and in Korea, who had been mustard-gassed in France and bloodied on Iwo Jima, and I was going to ignore him?

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Weinberger was the very epitome of honor, with little tolerance for gay bashers or sexual harassers, an iron-tough relic of the Old Corps, where dignity of spirit mattered as much as a mastery of arms.

I wasn’t going to turn my back on a man who had never turned his back on us.

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I wrote about Weinberger a few years back when the power of his voice could rattle windows and his handshake was a steel clamp. And then I saw him a couple of months ago, his voice muted by a stroke, his handshake softened.

He knew he was dying but faced death with the same equanimity displayed in the face of bombs and bayonets a long time ago, as calm with impending oblivion as he was with the drums and bugles of battle.

Weinberger was a combat photographer for the Corps. He retired as a major in 1972 and considered himself the world’s oldest Marine. He was an ex-Marine, actually, but once you put on the uniform you never really take it off, so he stayed a Marine right to the end.

It sounds pretty easy in war to be a guy shooting footage and not actually fighting, but I know it’s not. I’ve seen combat photographers moving around in the middle of fire and hell while the rest of us were hunkered down in foxholes, just so history would have some idea of what war was like.

Shrapnel tore into Weinberger’s tough old hide on the beach at Iwo, but before the Japanese cut him down, camera in hand, he shot the kind of film which, in graphic detail, emulsified the stark realities of death and dying on the fields of battle.

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He showed me one film that was 13 minutes of sheer horror. Guns fired. Shells exploded. Bodies flew. The very air was on fire.

“You’ve got to hate war,” he said to me as we watched it, his voice losing its leathery edge. “You’ve really got to hate it.”

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They buried Weinberger Sunday with a 21-gun salute by Marines in their dress blues. Honor was accorded a man whose very existence stood for it.

I’m not the kind of guy to celebrate the military. I didn’t save my uniform from the Korean War or my campaign ribbons with battle stars on them. I don’t even know where my discharge papers are.

I walked away from the Corps without a backward glance, neither proud nor ashamed that I had served in its ranks, neither proud nor ashamed that I did what I had to do when my country said to do it.

We owe debts in a democracy if we want to keep it, and sometimes payment requires facing danger. Humanity has yet to evolve to a level of civility where arms are not required to achieve detente.

I never intended to get preachy. It’s just that thinking about old Harrold and the kind of man he was stirred memories of other warriors in other places who edged forward into the cloudy light of battle because they felt that what we have is worth saving.

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They fell on the beaches, the mountains, the deserts and the jungles over an allegiance not so much to a flag as to an ideal of human dignity which alone was worth the walk into withering enemy fire.

By that measure I found it impossible to ignore Weinberger, the very best of those who never for a moment doubted their obligation to duty. He served the ideal well. Bow your head, L.A.

Play taps.

Al Martinez can be reached online at almartinez@latimes.com


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