Nothing sours one’s appreciation of a significant patriotic holiday like working full time with veterans. Having done just that for three years through the ebb and flow of cynicism and burnout has led to such bold pronouncements as, “the happiest, healthiest veteran is the one you can’t find” and “most veterans will serve honorably and go back to being the losers they already were.” Even the more intelligent remarks, like, “war doesn’t break people; life does, and some of the broken people make their way into the military,” still suggests a diminished opinion of military service itself, servicemembers and veterans. It can also contagiously extend to holidays.
Every year people endure countless articles, sermons and ceremonies about how veterans are heroes and we should honor them always and remember the fallen and so forth. Then awash in flag-waving fervor, sincere members of the public seek out veterans and wish us a Happy Memorial Day. In my darker moments, I will remind them that Veterans Day in November is my day and Memorial Day in May is for the dead veterans and – therefore – they’re wishing me a happy Dead Veterans Day, but better that than Happy Barbeque to Kick Off the Summer Day, I suppose. They usually leave at this point. I am jaded, possibly.
I think part of the problem is that the pendulum has swung too far for me. In the past, I (like many veterans) used Memorial Day as an opportunity to go around acting somber and feeling sorry for myself under the guise of grieving the fallen (a number get completely drunk and claim it somehow honors the dead). Insofar as my mood garnered me the attention or the respectful distance I sought, I’d say it was successful. Little of it had anything to do with the fallen. I was selfish. Now, though, I vacillate between pragmatism and cynicism.
I served in a different generation of warrior than my forebears. And as much as its modern participants will argue that war is still hell and totally awful, they forget that military doctrine and practice have shifted considerably. These days, a man going down is a catastrophe and usually – perhaps always – halts whatever mission they were undertaking. Seventy years ago, men going down was just as awful, but absolutely routine. Men go to war and, invariably, fewer of them come home. We forget that. Of course they lost comrades. Today, I wonder if we consider it a notable exception.
For the record, I did serve in a war, and I did lose friends. But I temper my grief with the knowledge that every last one of us volunteered – many of us with the express purpose of going to war. Some of them I deeply respected and a few I considered friends. Every single one of them left behind families. I miss them, and I grieve for their families. But as for us, we volunteered. And then, I superimpose that knowledge onto Memorial Day itself.
War, though, didn’t always look like this. War involved citizens who were mostly called up by their nation, who served honorably even though they most certainly did not volunteer and – oftentimes – ran headlong into imminent danger because it was the honorable thing to do. Not because they wanted a taste of the action. They charged because their country asked them to.
And with men falling all around them, they were painfully aware of their own mortality. Think, as an example, that the capture of Iwo Jima cost the lives of just under 7,000 Marines and Soldiers. In comparison, the Global War on Terror has claimed less than that in its decade-long entirety. These days, we mostly expect to come home. Back then, heaven only knew. And for over 400,000, they did not. They’re buried throughout most of the free world – free largely because of their sacrifice.
The more sensitive among us will hang a US flag today and think quite highly of ourselves for our show of seasonal patriotism. I’ve displayed a flag too, actually. But I think our debt extends beyond a flag, a Mass, a short ceremony, or a stupid barbeque.
I believe it’s a familial responsibility. If I find admirable the men who set aside their innate sense of self and pushed forward while their buddies dropped and the dying screamed, then it is my duty to demonstrate character of the same sort. It begins with honoring those who have already exhibited it, and continues with ensuring that our own sons see us do it. It continues with raising them to possess the same honor as those who came before us, and culminates with praying to God that they never have cause to exercise it. Even fear of losing them shouldn’t dissuade us.
If theirs is hallowed ground and the dead brave men, then let us raise more of them, and let them know what honor is. That should they one day walk among the fallen, they will do so as equals.
Copyright © Ben Shaw, 2013