For years, America observed Memorial Day on May 30 of each year, initially to honor the soldiers who died in the American Civil War. Following WW-I, however, Congress expanded its observance to honor all U. S. men and women who have died in military service to their country.
Congress changed the day of observance to the last Monday in May. I’m not sure of the significance of the celebration date, but I suspect that it had more to do with a commercial opportunity for retail sales than it did with expanding the nation’s period for honoring its war-dead.
Whatever! This is not about when we observe it. It’s about why and for whom we observe it. I’m going to speak to the matter strictly from my own perspective: that of a combat veteran.
At the outset, I want you to know that in Washington, DC there is a Viet Nam Memorial Wall. It consists of 58,195 names; service people who died fighting for this country’s “security” interests.
I considered twenty-seven of them close friends. We had similar hopes and dreams for our futures. Five of us became like brothers, two of which died while cradled in my arms.
I still—over 40-years later at the age of 66—bolt upright in bed tightly clutching my pillow; their faces are as vivid as they were that awful day.
I see and feel the stickiness of their blood on my hands and combat fatigues. I watch helplessly as they exhale for the last time. I feel them go to dead weight. My heart pounds in my head and sometimes I can’t go back to sleep!
Surviving combat veterans never forget. Don’t believe, even for a moment, that we do.
Personally, I’ve never met any surviving combat veterans who’ve ever expressed the notion of looking forward to dying for their country. I know that I certainly never did.
Neither have these honorable folks ever expressed any signs of exhilaration at the prospect of being wounded, either. Again, I certainly never looked forward to my wounds.
Some military people want to be there, of course, especially young and naïve gung-hoers that can’t wait to get over there and kick enemy asses. But, most would as soon be somewhere else.
Even the young naïve gung-hoers soon change their attitudes after that first taste of real combat causes them to realize that there and Hell are the same place.
It’s amazing how quickly cockiness dissipates in the shadow of genuine fear, frequently accompanied by uncontrollable vomiting and, sometimes, by a loss of both bladder and bowel control.
There is no romanticism about it, though. Strictly speaking, military people die in combat because they’re in the military at the time a war begins and they end up over there.
For many, even though at the time they joined… voluntarily… at some earlier point, it was not necessarily to be sent over there. In Viet Nam, most would rather have been somewhere else but had no choice because they were drafted and sent over there.
There is nothing dishonorable about this. It’s simple human nature. And, military people are just as human as their civilian counterparts are.
The reason that our service men and women deserve our nation’s unyielding respect and eternal gratitude isn’t because they “unselfishly” sacrificed their lives for all of us, but because they honored their commitment to complete assigned missions, to the death if necessary.
Herein lies the honor and dignity of military service, volunteer or otherwise. These are ordinary people, who consistently accomplish extraordinary tasks under unfathomably dangerous circumstances.
It’s why the military ideal; “We’ll ALL come back—though some will be dead—or none of us will come back;” is not just rhetoric. They believe it to very depths of their souls and they prove it every day of their lives.
The other aspect of Memorial Day pertains to the loved ones left behind; the ones who must, somehow, try to piece their lives back together after a good deal of their reason for living has died in combat.
Our concern for those who have died in combat, and their families, is genuine. It is also, for the most part, clinical. But that all changes when it involves one of our own. Then it becomes very personal.
Generally, we do not experience war’s full impact. At best, we’ll see a few flag-draped caskets being carried off of transport planes. It’s all very ceremonial, solemn, and respectful. But, it’s also quite sanitized.
The raw, terrible reality that, many times, the remains inside those caskets are missing critical parts is always born by remaining loved ones. Unless we clinical observers have experience to the contrary, we miss this hideous point entirely.
The Pentagon refers to such cases as “viewing not recommended.” Inside of such caskets are shrouded, unrecognizable remains of what was, not long ago, someone’s loving spouse, child, parent, sibling, or friend.
The remains are shrouded, tucked beneath an immaculately prepared empty dress uniform, complete with medals and ribbons. Oh, there is a body, or what’s left of one, but you’d have to reach down, beneath the dress uniform to feel it inside the shroud.
If the media would let this reality smack us between our eyes, the incessant chest thumping on the part of too many wannabe warriors would stop in a hurry. And, our politicians would learn, first hand, the meaning of direct accountability.
Finally, it’s time all of us come to understand that this nation is not free because some version of a benevolent deity is on “our side.”
While it is nice, snuggly and acceptable to think such thoughts as a matter of religious faith, it is folly of the worst sort to rely too heavily on such beliefs as a matter of military tactics.
As a nation, in uniform or not, beginning on day we declared ourselves independent from King George, right up to the present, we’ve always been willing AND able to do whatever we had to do in order to keep ourselves free.
If we ever lose either the will or the ability to defend ourselves—to the death if necessary—against all foes, we’ll forfeit our freedoms and render our Constitution worth less than the paper it’s written on.
Our military personnel have always held true to their commitment of service, even to the fullest measure, to keep us free. Our civilian population, overwhelmingly, has always been willing to make the sacrifices to support our troops, the perceived righteousness of the war notwithstanding.
Before we send our best and brightest into harm’s way, we’d better have a righteous reason for doing so. We’d better fully understand precisely what we’re asking our youngsters to do. And, we’d better possess a national resolve to complete the mission successfully and bring them home.
A President’s clueless hankering to kick some ass does not qualify and a Congress inept at driving that point home is useless to us as a nation.
And, once we have our war veterans back home again, particularly the wounded, we’d better be prepared to take care of them with the same level of commitment that they had when they fulfilled theirs.
Have a safe and meaningful Memorial Day. Back at you next week.
Joe Walther is a freelance writer and publisher of The True Facts. You may comment on his column by clicking here.