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I once heard a man say, "Where Vanderbilt sits, there is the head of the table. I teach my son to be rich." He said what many think. For although the generation born about 1840, and now governing the world, has fought two at least of the greatest wars in history, and has witnessed others, war is out of fashion, and the man who commands attention of his fellows is the man of wealth. Commerce is the great power. The aspirations of the world are those of commerce. Moralists and philosophers, following its lead, declare that war is wicked, foolish, and soon to disappear.

The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any other grievance. Most of my hearers would rather that their daughters or their sisters should marry a son of one of the great rich families than a regular army officer, were he as beautiful, brave, and gifted as Sir William Napier. I have heard the question asked whether our war was worth fighting, after all. There are many, poor and rich, who think that love of country is an old wife's tale, to be replaced by interest in a labor union, or, under the name of cosmopolitanism, by a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most enjoyment may be had at the least cost.

Meantime we have learned the doctrine that evil means pain, and the revolt aginst pain in all its forms has grown more and more marked. From societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals up to socialism, we express in numberless ways the notion that suffering is a wrong which can be and ought to be prevented, and a whole literature of sympathy has sprung into being which points out in story and in verse how hard it is to be wounded in the battle of life, how terrible, how unjust it is that any one should fail.

Even science has had its part in the tendencies which we observe. It has shaken established religion in the minds of very many. It has pursued analysis until at last this thrilling world of colors and passions and sounds has seemed fatally to resolve itself into one vast network of vibrations endlessly weaving an aimless web, and the rainbow flush of cathedral windows, which once to enraptured eyes appeared the very smile of God, fades slowly out into the pale irony of the void.

And yet from vast orchestras still comes the music of mighty symphonies. Our painters even now are spreading along the walls of our Library glowing symbols of mysteries still real, and the hardly silenced cannon of the East proclaim once more that combat and pain still are the portion of man. For my own part, I believe that the struggle for life is the order of the world, at which it is vain to repine. I can imagine the burden changed in the way it is to be borne, but I cannot imagine that it ever will be lifted from men's backs. I can imagine a future in which science shall have passed from the combative to the dogmatic stage, and shall have gained such catholic acceptance that it shall take control of life, and condemn at once with instant execution what now is left for nature to destroy. But we are far from such a future, and we cannot stop to amuse or to terrify ourselves with dreams. Now, at least, and perhaps as long as man dwells upon the globe, his destiny is battle, and he has to take the chances of war. If it is our business to fight, the book for the army is a war-song, not a hospital-sketch. It is not well for soldiers to think much about wounds. Sooner or later we shall fall; but meantime it is for us to fix our eyes upon the point to be stormed, and to get there if we can.

Behind every scheme to make the world over, lies the question, What kind of world do you want? The ideals of the past for men have been drawn from war, as those for women have been drawn from motherhood. For all our prophecies, I doubt if we are ready to give up our inheritance. Who is there who would not like to be thought a gentleman? Yet what has that name been built on but the soldier's choice of honor rather than life? To be a soldier or descended from soldiers, in time of peace to be ready to give one's life rather than suffer disgrace, that is what the word has meant; and if we try to claim it at less cost than a splendid carelessness for life, we are trying to steal the good will without the responsibilities of the place. We will not dispute about tastes. The man of the future may want something different. But who of us could endure a world, although cut up into five-acre lots, and having no man upon it who was not well fed and well housed, without the divine folly of honor, without the senseless passion for knowledge outreaching the flaming bounds of the possible, without ideals the essence of which is that they can never be achieved? I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.
    -The Soldier's Faith (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Memorial Day, May 30, 1895)

Justice Holmes is recalled. among other things, for his two famed Memorial Day speeches and his service in the Civil War, for the North, of course. Anyone who watched Ken Burns's Civil War will recall the line from Holmes's other speech: "[I]n our youth our hearts were touched with fire." So it was peculiar to discover, in Sheldon Novick's Holmes bio, that while the great man always took pride in his wartime experience, he had hoped that his third battle wound would result in amputation so he could leave the military and he did in fact walk away when his initial three-year enlistment was up. One could hardly ask for a "better war" than fighting for the North against slavery, and yet he chose not to fight at a certain point. Likewise, if you read the memoirs and novels published immediately after WWII, they reflect the ambivalence of the men who fought, even their disgust, at what we have come to call the "Good War," once revelations about and public fascination with the Holocaust made such mixed feelings impossible to voice.

So one would hardly expect to find many soldiers who have fought in the post-9/11 conflicts to be unplagued by questions and doubts, particularly in light of the bitter partisan battle Democrats waged against the Commander-in-Chief over those wars. And a book "co-written" by a father who survives the son killed in action in Iraq, a son who was something of a self-educated philosopher, has the potential to make the skin crawl. Given that Staff Sgt. Darrell "Skip" Griffin, Jr's contribution to the book comes mainly in the form of journal entries, blog posts, and e-mails written in the midst of war, there is much room for the confusion and self-absorption that so often characterizes the "grunt's-eye" view. And any father could be forgiven bitterness at the conflict that claims a son. But it is the nature of the two Griffin men, both quintessentially self-made Americans, that they keep the bigger picture and the larger questions always in mind. Indeed, they had planned to write this book when Skip returned from the war, basing it on the "Great Conversation" they had conducted for years, Darrell Sr. having encouraged his son to read deeply and Skip having immersed himself in a found set of the “Great Books of the Western World.” This consciousness, that their particular war occurred in the context of the wider civilization (and civilizations, once you add Islam to the equation) raises the book beyond the level of most war memoirs and Skip's engagement with issues beyond himself seems to have impressed many of his fellow soldiers and commanders. By the time of his death he'd already been written about in profiles of his Stryker unit that appeared in TIME and US News.

While Skip's writings are well-represented here, the book is necessarily narrated by his father. Darrell Sr. grew up "white trash," a grandchild of Okies who fled to California. His parents were 16 when he was conceived and he had three sisters the next three years, before his mother and her unborn baby were killed in a car accident. His father dumped the kids on his in-laws and joined the Hell's Angels. Darrell in turn got Skip's mother pregnant when he was still just a junior in high school. He would not truly settle down until he was on his third wife, Kim Tomomatsu, who worked the internal audit department at Foster Farms, where he was an accountant, having lifted himself to at least the fringes of the middle class.

Just as he is honest about his own hardcrabble early life, Mr. Griffin presents a warts-and-all portrait of Skip. His son abused and dealt drugs, used steroids during a body-building phase, and ran afoul of the law. Eventually, Darrell Sr. had to bar his son from the house, a painful dose of tough love. But Skip met Diana Ramirez when he was rehabbing and reconciled with his father. As Darrell Sr's sister said at the wedding: "Wasn't it great that none of the bridesmaids or the bride were wearing maternity dresses?"

As he pulled his life back together, Skip really began his engagement with philosophy and religion, getting baptized in 1994, organizing a Bible study group, and frequenting the Archives Bookshop in Pasadena. He joined the Army on July 2, 2001.

Skip Griffin was killed during his third tour of duty in Iraq, where he'd been awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, though he'd also managed to get into some trouble, including trying to use his own gun, rather than his general issue weapon. Both Griffins give us a detailed look at what combat was like for Skip's unit. And, following Skip's death, Darrell Sr. even managed to get embedded with the same unit. A final haunting incident there gives some sense of closure, though one suspects that the book provides a greater one.

It is an unfortunate facet of the all-volunteer armed forces that we can wage war steadily for 8 years and many of us will have had no contact with the men and women fighting on our behalf. Happily, there have been few enough casualties in the wars that even a media generally hostile to the overall conflict doesn't obsess over the losses--the way they did in Vietnam. But it's important that we try to know these heroes who serve our country and the cause of freedom, even though they may sometimes doubt our purposes. Skip Griffin, who rose from the proverbial trailer park and a troubled youth to become something of a philosopher-warrior, represented the very best America has to offer the world, with his thoughtful idealism and willingness to sacrifice his own life that a people half a world away might have a chance at better lives themselves. Darrell Sr's pride in his son flows from every page of this book and no reader will fail to feel proud to claim Darrell Jr. as a fallen son of America.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Darrell Griffin Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Last Journey
    -ESSAY: Why I wrote "Last Journey" with my son, SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr (KIA 03/21/07) (Darrell Griffin, Sr, , September 25, 2009, BeliefNet)
    -EXCERPT: A Soldier's Journal (Darrell Griffin, Jr.)
    -EXCERPT: from Last Journey: Chapter 1: Getting the News
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Darrell Griffin, Sr.: Last Journey (Rick Kogan, 10/02/09)
-MULTIMEDIA PACKAGE: Staff Sgt. Darrell Griffin (US News and World Report)
    -PROFILE: E-Mails Reveal a Fallen Soldier's Story (Alex Kingsbury, 5/13/07, US News)
    -ARTICLE: Under Fire on a 'Fallen Angel' Rescue (Alex Kingsbury, 5/10/07, US News)
    -OBIT: Army Staff Sgt. Darrell R. Griffin Jr., 36, Alhambra; killed in combat (Megan Garvey, 4/08/07, LA Times)
    -OBIT: Darrell R. Griffin Jr.: Local soldier killed in Iraq (Patricia Ho, 03/30/2007, Pasadena Star-News)
    -OBIT: SSG Darrell R. Griffin Jr. (Stryker Brigade News, Mar-23-2007)
    -OBIT: Stryker soldier who earned Bronze Star shot, killed in Iraq (MICHAEL GILBERT, 3/24/07, The News Tribune)
    -TRIBUTE: Soldiers remember ‘great warrior’ (Don Kramer, April 5th, 2007, Northwest Guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: Wednesday Hero – Staff Sgt Darrell R Griffin Jr (Beth, Jun 27, 2007, Conservative Thoughts)
    -TRIBUTE: Staff Sgt. Darrell R. Griffin Jr. (Washington Post, Faces of the Fallen)
    -TRIBUTE: Troops salute fallen leader (Washington Times, 3/27/07)
    -TRIBUTE: A Eulogy for SSG Darrell Ray Griffin, Jr. (SGT. Victor Quinonez, 3/26/07, Michael Yon Magazine)
    -BOOK LIST: Father's Day gift ideas (Teresa Budasi, June 17, 2009, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -BOOK LIST: The Best Books of 2009: Editors' Picks: Compiled by James Mustich, Barnes & Noble)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey: A Father and Son in Wartime by Darrell Griffin Sr. and Darrell "Skip" Griffin Jr. (Anthony Swofford, Barnes & Noble Review)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Dwight Garner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (J. Ford Huffman, Army Times)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Moni Basu, CNN)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey ( Vincent Bosquez, San Antonio Express-News)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Don Kramer,
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Adam Ashton, Modesto Bee)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Kanani Fong, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Bergen Record)
    -REVIEW: of Last Journey (Don Kramer, Northwest Guardian)

Book-related and General Links: