I’m a few days early this year, but I’m in the midst of moving cross country and have to write when I can. Portions of this text first appeared here on Stonekettle Station beginning on Memorial Day, 2011. Each year I update the text as my thoughts on the subject evolve. The wars change. The years pass. But the message remains the same. // Jim
The sky is the color of gunmetal.
Outside my window the mountains bulk like a fleet of ghostly warships on the horizon.
The world is silent here in the Matsu. The air is dead still. No dog gives warning. No planes buzz overhead. There are no glad cries of neighbor children. Even the whine of the mosquitos is missing this morning. It is cool and gray and silent as only Alaska can be, the kind damp dullness you feel in your bones – or I do anyway, the ache of more than two decades of service.
I’ll miss it.
I’ll be leaving Alaska soon, moving south to the Gulf Coast of Florida, the land of endless sunshine and unrelenting heat, alligators and rednecks and noise. I’ll miss the cool silent grayness of these Alaskan mornings. It often suits my mood, this grayness, the aching bones. Contemplation and memories, gray is a good canvas to paint on.
Somehow, today of all days, cool and gray seems fitting.
This is the day we Americans are supposed to pause for a moment and remember those many who have fallen in the service of our country.
You see, Memorial Day isn’t about honoring veterans, not the living ones anyway.
Memorial day is supposed to be about the dead.
This is the day some dutiful Americans visit the graveyards and the military cemeteries to place flowers and flags and to remember husbands and brothers and wives and mothers and sisters and sons and daughters who wore the uniform and came when called and gave the last full measure. My own father lies out there, under the cool white marble of a military cemetery, and today I dearly wish I could stop by for a visit – but it’s half a world away, too far, and my visit will have to wait another month for my drive south to Florida. It pains me that I cannot be there today, but Dad would understand.
Today is a day when we will lay the wreaths and sound the lonely trumpet and shed a tear and a salute for those comrades long gone.
Today is about the cool gray ghosts who still wander the countless battlefields of America, from Lexington to Antietam, from the Ardennes to the Chosin Reservoir, to Tet, to Basra, to Kamdesh, and all the terrible battles yet to come.
And come they will. For that is our nature.
Once this day was called Decoration Day in honor of those who died during the American Civil War.
Later the holiday became a day of remembrance for those killed in all conflicts.
Today, Memorial Day supposedly marks the passing of those who died in uniform, both in peace and in war.
Today is supposed to be about those who gave their lives for freedom and liberty, for justice and right, for the ideal of a more perfect union.
But in reality, it’s not the soldiers we remember. It’s the endless war.
It’s been more than a decade now since those terrible days in September of 2001.
Sixteen years of war and death and sacrifice.
For our children, this most recent generation, the ones just now reaching the age of reason and awareness, they have never known an America not at war.
They have never lived in a nation at peace.
Think on that. No, that’s not a rhetorical statement. Think on that. Think on how this conflict has shaped them, this generation, how it defines their worldview during the most formative years of their lives and how this world will shape the one they create a decade from now for their own children.
For them, this new generation, war has become so commonplace, so ubiquitous, that it’s simply business as usual.
For them, war simply is.
For them, war is just another aspect of American life, like plumbing and electricity and the flow of money, invisible and all around. The dead come home from conflict invisibly, hidden, silently, returned to their grieving families in quiet ceremonies away from the public eye, unlamented and unnoticed by a nation grown jaded and bored with slaughter. They don’t see the dead, not until days like this one, when the bodies are safely hidden away under slabs of white marble and fields of green manicured grass and words of patriotism and valor.
For them, this generation, war is normal.
And those of us born in the 1960’s? Well we certainly can’t tell them that this is wrong.
We certainly cannot tell this generation war is not the normal state, that normality is peace without conflict.
See, because we grew up in a nation at war too. By the time I was sixteen, America had been fighting in Southeast Asia for my entire life. The media was daily filled with images of blood and death, body counts, mangled and maimed soldiers, of burning helicopters and a terrifyingly incomprehensible enemy. We were told we would go next, that we had to, or the enemy would come here, to America, and slaughter us all.
Back home? Well, back home, the streets were filled with violence and unrest and it seemed that America was about to tear itself to pieces in a clash of violently opposed ideologies – because no matter how much the enemy might despise us, we hated ourselves, our neighbors, our fellow Americans, even more. And how did that shape our worldview, the world we have given to our own children?
For us, war is the normal state of affairs too.
And our parents?
They remember a brief period of idyllic America, the perfect peaceful 1950’s, sock hops and ducktails and white picket fences, providing you lived on the right side of the tracks – while Korea raged unseen and ignored in the background and at home they waited for the bombs to fall and saw commies hiding in every shadow.
Their parents had World War Two, and before that … well, the list goes back a long, long way and perhaps war is a normal state of affairs for us Americans after all.
There are a lot of dead to remember on this Memorial Day.
And so it goes, this endless cycle.
Today there are those who instead of picnicking with their familiars, instead of working in their yards or enjoying the day, will be patrolling the dark and dangerous corners of this world. They’re out there, right now, walking the bitter broken mountains of central Asia. They’re out there right now standing the long watch on and below and above the seas. They’re out there in the fetid festering jungles of South America, in the dry dusty deserts of Africa, in the blistering heat of the Middle East, in lands so remote you’ve never even heard of them – and wouldn’t believe the descriptions of such places if you did. They are out there right now, as far away as a cold airless orbit high above the Earth and as close as local bases in their own states and the armories of their own home towns.
Some of these men and women will not live out today.
Some will most certainly come home to Dover Air Force Base in a cold steel box beneath the draped colors of the Stars and Stripes, their war over, their dreams ash, soon to be just another restless ghost in America’s legion of the dead.
Today, there are those who wear the uniform, but can no longer serve – their duty stations are the crowded and forgotten wards of military hospitals around the world. They won’t be working in the yard or grilling out today either. Some will spend the day with family, even if they are unaware of it.
Soon too their last battle will be over.
Today there are those who no longer serve, no longer wear the uniform, but they still fight. They fight the nightmares of Vietnam and Beirut and Mosul and Firebase Alpha and a thousand other battlefields you’ve never heard of. They are the walking dead, killed in action only they no longer have the wit to know it and so they haunt the streets of America, the forgotten unseen discarded cold gray ghosts of war and conflict, poisoned by nightmares, by pills and alcohol and poverty, slowly fading away.
And today, of course, there are those who no longer fight, no longer struggle, no longer remember. They lay entombed in the soil of foreign nations, at Normandy, at Tunis, at the Ardennes, at Brookwood and Cambridge, at Flanders and Lorraine, at Manila, Mexico City, in the Netherlands, the Somme, and many other places whose names most Americans no longer remember or never knew. One hundred and twenty four thousand, nine hundred and nine American servicemen lay interred forever in twenty-four cemeteries on foreign shores and there they will stay, never to return to America. They were the lucky ones, if you can call it luck, found and honored and laid to rest by their fellows. Others, well, their bones are myriad and they litter the sea floor beneath all the oceans of the world or are lost in the jungles and deserts on all the world’s continents, their resting places unknown and unremembered.
Today, here, within the boundaries of the United States, there are one hundred and forty-six national military cemeteries, and more than a million Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Guardsmen lie beneath the cold white granite, my own father among their brave company.
Their battles are long, long over, even if the war still rages on.
They, all of them, came when called, some of their own free will and some not, and did their duty and no one, no one, can ask any more of them.
For them, for all of them, for those who have fallen or will fall in this lousy war, and for all those who have fallen in all the conflicts we’ve fought lo these many years, for those who will fall tomorrow, today raise a glass and give a nod towards the flag.
Remember those cool gray ghosts.
If only for a moment.