Portions of this text first appeared here on Stonekettle Station, Memorial Day, 2011. The wars change, the years pass, the message remains the same // Jim
Once again, it’s a gorgeous day here in the Alaskan Matsu.
It promises to be a beautiful Memorial Day.
This is the day we Americans are supposed to pause for a moment and remember those who have fallen in the service of our country.
Memorial Day isn’t about honoring veterans per se, not exactly. Veterans, the living ones anyway, have their own day.
Memorial day is supposed to be about the dead, those who have fallen in military service. Once it 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, and today it marks the passing of all those who died in uniform in both peace and war.
This is the day that 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.
For some, 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.
It’s also a perfect day, here near my home in Alaska, for grilling out or for taking a drive in the convertible with my lovely wife or for puttering around in the woodshop with the large bay doors open – and I may do all three.
Because you see, even though Memorial Day is nominally about honoring the dead, it’s also about celebrating life.
And on this, of all days, it’s important to remember that.
Because celebrating life is something we do far, far to little of in recent decades.
It’s been more than a decade now since those terrible days in September of 2001.
It’s been more than a decade 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 about that.
For them, this new generation, war has become so commonplace, so ubiquitous, that it’s simply business as usual. For them, war simply is, it’s just another aspect of 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 war.
For them, this generation, war is normal.
And their parents, those of us born in the 1960’s, we can’t tell them that they’re wrong, that 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 ten, America had been fighting in Southeast Asia for my entire life. The news media was daily filled with images of blood and death, mangled and maimed soldiers, of burning helicopters and a terrifyingly incomprehensible enemy. At 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 hate us, we hated ourselves, our neighbors, our fellow Americans, even more.
For us, war is the normal state of affairs too.
And before that it was Korea, and before that World War Two, and before that … well, the list goes back a long, long way.
There are a lot of dead to remember on this Memorial Day.
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, 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 as far away as a cold airless orbit high above the Earth and as close as local bases in their own states.
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 fled.
And 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.
And 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 ghosts of war and conflict, slowly fading away.
And, 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. And 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. 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, today raise a glass and give a nod towards the flag.
Remember them, if only for a moment.
Then enjoy your day, celebrate your precious and fragile life, because that’s why they do what they do.