Honoring the Fallen

Memorial Day is a “holiday” for remembering the people who died while serving in the Nations Armed Forces.  I remember the days when it was still held on the 30th of May — like Christmas and New Year which are still celebrated on specific days of the year, and unlike the holidays that have been made vacation excuses — somehow it always bothered me when the holiday became more about convenience than purpose.  It wasn’t very convenient for the men and women who died; it was about their service to their country, not another day off.

“Democracy is never
a thing done,” MacLeish
said. “Democracy is
always something
that a nation must be

I’m afraid my attitude Memorial Day changed forever when I was working in the 70’s for a former Lieutenant Colonel.  He was a guy who affected my later life in a lot of different ways, and I still remember him vividly.  Before I return to this story I should just comment that bosses who were former military seem to have had a marked impact on me.  My first boss — he was a “mere” grunt in the Korean Conflict — and he lost his leg in combat and I learned a lot about life and work from him too.  But that’s a story for another day.

Graves at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day

So anyway… this boss of mine and I were talking and the subject of military deaths came up.  He stopped me dead in my tracks when he started talking about the literal hundred-or-so deaths each year among men and women in uniform that occur during training.

I have long wondered how the families of those individuals feel about their young adults giving their life in a training exercise — before they ever see the battlefield?   It’s a sobering and a serious ponder.

It’s no secret that I am a pacifist. I took the legal option available because of my conviction and did alternative service.  Actually, I forced my draft board to take action as my lottery number that year was way up there and I would have skated through my eligibility without fear; but I didn’t feel right doing nothing when many of my High School classmates had served or were serving in Vietnam. Alternative service is what my government asked of me, and that was what I gave. It turned out that alternative service wasn’t all that safe either.  There were five of us at the same facility in Chicago and one of the five of us lost his life while there — 20% of us — right here in the U.S. — but of course he had no uniform on and no one remembers his name or the circumstances.  Kind of like those young men and women who lose their in training exercises.

It’s a dangerous world out there.  I’ve traveled enough in other countries to have been stopped at roadblocks by machine-gun armed soldiers, I’ve walked European city streets when on every street corner I saw three heavily armed men — local police, national police and soldiers — standing guard against violence.  This is a world that requires men and women of courages and honor who are willing to do a dangerous job for the sake of the rest of us.

I like to think that the reason they are there is about more than money and power.  I like to think that it’s not just the “idea” of Freedom that they stand to protect.  I like to think that they care about their families and their friends.  That they want to see them safe, and healthy, and employed and happy — not just that they have money in their pockets.

“Every generation of young men and women
in America has questions to ask the world,
But every now and again in the history of
the Republic a different kind of question
presents itself—a question that asks, not
about the future of an individual or even
of a generation, but about the future
of the country.” —
FDR, 1940

I’m not so naive as to think that some of the wars we have engaged in (as a nation) are not about money and power.  But I know without doubt that good and honest men and women have gone off to do what their nation has asked of them no matter whether the men in charge have been individuals of honor and foresight and compassion and integrity because we have seen enough in history to know that has not always been the case. Yet good and honorable people have died in the protection of their nation.  And for that we all ought to be thankful.

Still, on this day when we honor our fallen my mind goes to those among the fallen who are less remembered.  They aren’t the ones who died on the way up some hill fighting the enemy.  No one will call their moment of truth a “memorable battle” and no one will laud the way their sacrifice furthered a pivotal moment in the battle’s progress or the history of the war.  These are almost forgotten soldiers — perhaps the only ones who remember them are their immediate family and loved ones for there are no memorials to those who died in training.  There is no glory to dying because someone made a mistake.  No glory to dying because you failed an exercise.  But they too gave the full measure of devotion; they too saw their duty and did it.  It’s a dangerous world out there — even before you get to the battlefield.

Memorial Day is about honor and service.  I think it means more to me THIS year than any previous year because while we are asking men and women of average ways and means to leave family and work to stand at risk those who are making such requests are nowhere near as noble or as honorable as these who are willing to stand on the firing line. I haven’t been offended if previous Presidents hadn’t served in the military; but I am offended this year by someone about whom our long term allies say they cannot trust, and who proves over and over again that his being in the spotlight is the most important goal — to the point of rudely pushing others aside.

It has always been that wars are started by (usually) men of mature age who find it easy to send (historically) young men into battle.  That will never change.  The more technologically advanced we get the easier it is for soldiers to kill dozens and hundreds and thousands of the “enemy”  from great distance.  We no longer spend nearly as much time in hand to hand combat — we prefer to do our killing from a distance.  But when it’s our own loved ones who die, and when they die while still training to do their duties perhaps that’s a good time for us to be reminded of the insane cruelty of war.  And of the fact that good and decent and loving and honorable men and women give that last full measure of devotion for this country.  Let’s keep it a country worth dying for.

Today isn’t a day to glorify the military.  It’s not a day to oooooh and ahhhh over loud guns and powerful airplanes and rumbling tanks.  Those things don’t honor the dead.  Cemeteries are not about noise and fury.  There’s a reason cemeteries tend to be quiet and lonely.  Cemeteries are about the silence caused by lives cut short; about the loneliness of being left behind; about living with honor whether or not those who ask your “all” deserve to respected, much less obeyed.


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