By lex, on May 29th, 2006
Odds are people asked you, “What are you doing for Memorial Day weekend?” Because that’s what people do, when the weather’s fine and a long weekend’s coming up. They ask in a well-meaning, value neutral kind of way, the question taking the place of the equally meaningless conversational things people may ask such as, “Do you think it’s going to rain?” Because as far as the Memorial Day weekend is concerned, for many it’d be OK if you were planning on a trip to the beach with the kids, or to Disney, or maybe just to the park for a picnic. It’d even be OK if you were just going to kick back, relax, chill out. See some old friends.
Because for many people, it’s just a long weekend to do with as you want – the open parenthesis to the brackets of summer. Memorial Day on this end, Labor Day on the other. The most civic minded of us will plant flags at our local military gravesites. And we may ask our children to remember those who gave the utmost level of devotion to secure our freedoms. But we mostly don’t talk among ourselves about the fact that names are still being added to the list of the lost, names that until recently belonged to people, but now belong to memory, belong to the ages. Names that once brought smiles to parents’ faces and light to a lover’s eyes but now bring only a whistling blow to the pit of the stomach for those who loved them. Names that now signify a vast, empty, mournful space that actual people used to fill. People with nearly infinite personal complexities, fears, hopes, dreams and yes, flaws.
And I can understand this reticence to talk about it, even while I think it a shame. The knowledge of loss is painful of course, but it’s become all tied up in low, spiteful, vile politics somehow. We’re at least a little bit afraid that if we answer the question, “What are you going to do for Memorial Day Weekend?” the way we really ought to – with something about remembering the sacrifices of those who made it possible for us to enjoy a long weekend in May, for example – we might see the pleasant blandness on our interlocutor’s face turn to something mean and hard. The passions of the moment.
And that’s a shame too, because the politics behind the policy we are embarked upon – support them or no – have no bearing upon the purity of the soldiers’ sacrifice. One year after this post later, another 878 names have been added to the list of those Americans who have fought and died in Iraq. Eight hundred and seventy-eight names, life experiences, unique windows on the universe – closed now, shuttered forever, a howling absence.
They didn’t fight for a president, they fought for a country, the one that gave them birth, gave them a home. They didn’t fight for a party, they fought for a people, and that people’s way of life, its rights and freedoms and yes, it’s responsibilities too. Our soldiers know them all too well, the obligations of a free society. It is a burden that they have shouldered for us, as free men and women, as volunteers. And for all too many of them, it was a burden that finally brought them low.
It is indisputable that they fought and died in a noble attempt, and were a part of freeing nearly 50 million minds. Whether or not we – and those minds that they liberated – are worthy of their sacrifice is something history will judge through a long and severe lens. And we should keep in mind, for better or for worse, that it will not only be the soldiers being judged, nor their captains and generals nor even presidents, but we ourselves who sent them. We ourselves for whom they fought. We ourselves for whom they died.
Remember then, and celebrate. Celebrate the fact that for over 200 years, nearly one million men and women have honored us enough to fight for us – enough, in the end, to die for us – over the course of our country’s birth, the agony of our Civil War, a “War to End all Wars,” and the war that it did not, Korea, Vietnam and now two wars in a far place, for a people we do not know. Celebrate the fact that no matter how bitter our internal divisions, no matter how imperfectly we have trod the world stage, there are still people willing to stand on the line for us, for the ideals we represent, for the man or woman on their left or right who is all they know of America when the bullets snap and whine. Soldiers on their left or right who held them in their arms for us, when the pain seeped away with the blood, who held them still as they finally offered up their names to us.
In return we must honor them. In return, we must earn this.