Tomorrow will be the day Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States of America. The date, which moved around a bit while the holiday was known as Decoration Day, was fixed at May 30 for many years, but in the last couple of decades it was changed to the last Monday in May, thus allowing a three-day weekend for most working people. More and more, it seems that the holiday marks the beginning of summer rather than what it was intended to mark: to memorialize, remember and gratefully thank the more than a million men and women who have lost their lives serving in our country’s armed forces.
In these days, after more than ten solid years of war, more families have ties to the military, it seems. And more, sadly, have lost relatives and friends and loves to war. (I seem to be using the word “more” a great deal in this post, but that’s appropriate. For all that the spiritual says “we ain’t gonna study war no more”, it seems that war will always be with us, a larger and larger specter on the horizon, a horrible biological marker we can’t seem to rid ourselves of. As a character said in the movie Gladiator, “there will always be somebody left to fight.”
Memorial Day got its start during and after the Civil War, when Southern families would decorate the graves of their fallen soldiers with flags and flowers, usually in May, although the actual date varied from state to state. Later on, it became a country-wide holiday, marking not just the Civil War, but all wars in which United States military personnel have fought and died. Unlike such holidays as Veteran’s Day (which is the current name for the holiday marking the end of the First World War and which now serves to mark the service of Armed Forces members in all wars, whether they were killed or not), Memorial Day is a day to thank those that gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service to their country.
I was a young woman during the war of Viet Nam, a time during which military service got itself tarred with the brush of the political decisions made regarding that war. My memories of those days are still bitter, with people greeting returning soldiers, alive and dead, with scorn and sometimes worse. Memorial Day seemed rather to mock our nation’s blistering discord over that war that played itself out in so many ways against the soldiers who had very little choice about fighting. It is probably not remembered now as much, but during those days, there was a draft, and soldiers went to Viet Nam because they had to, not because they volunteered. Most of them served honorably, although it sometimes seemed our media deliberately chose to find stories of dishonor. I wish to make this clear: I did not approve of the reasons for our military involvement in Viet Nam and was opposed to its continuation. However, both as the child of a man who had retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel and as a young adult who could not figure out why anybody, let alone members of the same generation, should vilify soldiers conscripted into service, I was appalled at the treatment of veterans and the dismissal of those who died in that jungle.
Since then, how many wars have there been? Police actions, some were called. Other names were used for other military ventures, because there is a law that while the American President can deploy troops, only Congress can declare war. And now, for the first time in how many years, we are fighting only (ONLY!) one war, the one in Afghanistan, a country that has so far absorbed and spit back every foreign military venture taking place within its borders, from Britain to Russia to us. Only one war. I don’t remember who said it, but I clearly remember some wise person saying that there is always a war somewhere.
Wars are the big things that history books love to talk about, the movement of troops, the decisions of generals, the pageantry of it all. Meanwhile, there are individual human beings, not toy soldiers, on those wrecked fields, driving those caissons and tanks, getting killed or, as is so very common in today’s modern war, getting severely injured in either or both brain and body. Individual human beings. People who could have sweethearts, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, children of their own. Lives. Once such people were openly called “cannon fodder.” It was always an ironic, grim designation, because it was so awfully true.
My father, as I said above, was in the Army. He joined when he was very young. Since he didn’t have a birth certificate, he was able to lie about his age. He worked his way up to sergeant in the Quartermaster Corps. This division of the United States Army handled supply and infrastructure, and my father started his military life as an army cook (or more probably he worked up to being an army cook by peeling potatoes like every other soldier). When World War II broke out, he was stationed in Panama. The Army had to vastly increase its size to meet the demands of WWII, and so required many more officers than it had needed since the Civil War. It instituted an Officers’ Candidate School, for which my father applied and was accepted. He graduated as a Second Lieutenant and remained in the Quartermaster Corps, achieving the rank of Major while on active duty in what was then Persia (now Iran and parts of Iraq) supervising the construction of the Red Ball Express across Persia to transport materiel to Russia, then our ally. (Note: the Wikipedia entry for “Red Ball Express” discusses only the convoys through France, but my father told me himself that the same designation was used for this highway through Iraq and Iran.) He was wounded in the leg during an attack by Bedouins, thus managing to achieve the difficult task of getting wounded in furtherance of the war but not in battle. And also managing to predate by some sixty-odd years the exact experience of our troops in today’s war in Iraq, only now the Bedouins are called insurgents. He recovered, but his leg was never right again, and he was rotated back to the United States, where he served at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and was retired in 1947, with the usual bump in rank and with full medical disability. He died, partially as a consequence still of that wound incurred in Persia, in 1960 and is buried, as was his fond wish, in Arlington National Cemetery.
My brother, David, served in the Korean War (ahem, police action), in the Navy. He was deployed on a ship that patrolled the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba up to Nova Scotia, I believe, and was delighted that his service was routine, boring and without much incident. He served three years, I believe, and then went to college and an eventual working life as a systems analyst, creating computer programs, sometimes for the United States military, thus coming full circle. I have a picture that I unfortunately cannot find or I would post it showing him grinning in his sailor uniform. My brother enjoys good health and a good life in California and long may he do so.
My husband, when I married, had retired from a career in the United States Air Force, in which he served as a surgeon. At one time, he was one of the doctors retrieving our astronauts (in the Gemini Program, I believe). His second to last deployment was as Command Surgeon at the Air Force Academy. He retired as a full Colonel and moved to our small town of Estes Park, where he acted as Chief Surgeon of the Estes Park Medical Center. He and I divorced (while living in California) in 1985 and he returned to Louisiana, his home state. He died there, the victim of esophageal cancer, in the late eighties.
I am so very fortunate that my loved ones, those I personally met and knew, did not die in battle. I have ancestors, as have we all, who did die in one or another battle, in this country or another one, fighting some war or another that now exists only in history books. I have a direct ancestor on my mother’s side who fought in the Revolutionary War as a member of a militia in Virginia. (He survived it.) It is that relative that allows me to claim that I am related to Davy Crockett. I can only assume that some great-great grandfathers or uncles of mine fought in the Civil War and probably in all other wars we have fought as a country. My stepfather served in the 22nd Engineers Corp in France in World War I (where he lost his hearing as a result of mustard gas, or so I was told). I would imagine that nobody reading this could actually say that no family member, no ancestor, ever died in a war, ever fought in a war. It is an ugly, continuing part of the human condition. I would not suggest that wars are never justified. I’m not a pacifist (I try not to be any type of “ist”, actually). Certainly, in my reading, it seems very much the truth that World War II had to be fought, for reasons that became totally clear only after the war ended. And it also seems that the Civil War could not have been avoided and, although it was not actually the reason it was fought, the end of slavery that resulted from the Civil War is an unreservedly good thing (although we didn’t handle the peace arising from the Civil War with any kind of grace). Other wars seem to me to be fought for reasons that do not rise to the term “necessary” or “good”. But then I am not as informed as I perhaps should be. I will not pronounce on our current and immediately past wars, because they are too close for there to be any judgment, at least on my part.
But they are fought by individual human beings. And on Memorial Day, we honor those who have died in battle, those who have put their own bodies between their beloved home and war. Our troops have been (along with two very big oceans) a primary reason that these ugly wars have not been fought on American soil since the Civil War–at least until terrorism changed the face of war culminating (so far) in the attack on and destruction of the World Trade Center. Those women and men who have died in battle have saved countless civilian lives as well as the lives of fellow soldiers. It is too much to ask of any human being, but that we survive as a country today has much to do with their service.
In my small town of Estes Park, there is a lawn in front of the Public Library on Elkhorn Avenue. Currently, in honor of Memorial Day, the library staff has “planted” hundreds of tiny American flags in this lawn. It is beautiful and it brings tears to the eye. I would rather see the boys and girls themselves, all alive and spiffed up in their dress uniforms, than flags, but seeing the flags helps me remember, helps remind me in the midst of the barbecue and the Memorial Day sales, to silently thank them all.