There was a time in my life when Memorial Day was just another nice day to have off from the office. I went for years without attending any kind of observance, and doing nothing more to remember than read the editorial in the morning newspaper that usually attempted some profound commentary on remembering those who have died in defense of country.
But in recent years, this day has meant more to me. I don’t know if it’s age or my own ambivalence about the wars that the U.S. has been engaged in for much of my adult life — the defense of Kuwait against Iraq, the Bosnia/Serbia action, Iraq 2, and Afghanistan. Or maybe it’s the fact that the majority of the young men and women who are coming home these days to be buried are the same age as my two sons. Or maybe it’s my own complicated struggle with why we fight wars in these times and whether there’s really an argument to be made that these actions are worth the cost.
For several years now, I have attended our town’s annual Monday morning memorial Day observance at one of the city parks. Today I went again. But before I did, I went for an hour-long bike ride that ended up being a long reflection on this day.
While I was pastor in Naples, Florida, I got to know several combat veterans of WWII. They weren’t anxious to talk about their experiences, but when they did, I heard powerful stories. Like the retired pastor who became a reluctant friend. He told me of fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, the horrible conditions, the pain of the cold, and of finding out later that unbeknownst to him, his twin brother was fighting in the same battle, maybe only a few hundred yards away, maybe a mile or two away. My pastor friend came home. His brother was killed in that battle.
I remember the family who told me of the grief of losing their son in the Vietnam war. They lived in a small town in Minnesota and attended a small Lutheran Church. Their son was drafted. He was supposed to take over their farm. He was killed in action. Of course, they were crushed, and I’m not sure they ever recovered. But what makes their story even worse was the alienation they felt in their church and community. It wasn’t that the people in their town were bad people. They just didn’t know what to do or what to say, so they stayed away. I remember Gladys telling me about people ducking into the next aisle at the grocery store so they wouldn’t have to say anything.
And I remember the kid (yes, kid) from our own church who was killed when his tank was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. I didn’t know him, but I knew of him. He went to the same high school as my sons, and graduated in one of the years between them. I know from his parents how proud he was to be a Marine and how the military had given him a new confidence and a direction in his life that was missing before he enlisted. And I know his family’s deep pain when he was killed, grief that they may never recover from.
I wish we had better language for describing what our fallen men and women have done. We often use the language of sacrifice, as in “they have paid the ultimate sacrifice.” But I don’t think that’s what they’ve done. Sacrifice is the language of payment. The Meso-Americans (the Aztecs, for instance) practiced human sacrifice. They placed a young man on a stone altar, cut his heart out while it was still beating and threw it to the gods as payment to insure the success of crops and military endeavors. That’s not what we do. We don’t go to war with the understanding that we willingly give up the lives of our young men and women in payment for peace or land or whatever it is. Americans would never stand for that proposition.
Nor is their death always particularly heroic. The speaker at our Memorial Day service today was quick to remind us that a lot of military deaths occur in the grind of just doing their daily job. It’s a dangerous job and sometimes things go wrong.
So, what language shall we use? Perhaps we should simply acknowledge that they have died in service of their country. They entered that service for lots of different reasons, some of them practical, some of them altruistic, but regardless, they signed up for work for a cause larger than themselves. They do a job that we don’t want to do and on some level has to be done. And many of them have lost their lives in that service. I hate that it has to be this way. It’s unsettling to me that even one of our young men or women should die in this fashion.
So, today, I simply remember them, the few that I have known or whose families I have known, and the thousands upon thousands that I don’t. And I remember them with a sad, but deeply grateful heart.