I’ll confess I don’t usually think about Memorial Day at all. It’s just another day to me that doesn’t really mean anything or stand for anything tangible. Oh sure, I get the fact it commemorates the sacrifice of soldiers past and present et cetera, but I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I know what that really means.
And I’m pretty sure the rest of America is in the same boat as I am in the sense that this day comes around every year and they go, “Well, what should we do? We don’t have to work.” And so they buy hamburgers, hot dogs, take the boat to the lake, invite people over to the neighborhood pool, and so on and so on. The majority of us don’t really get what it means to be in the military, so we just realize we might as well make the most (or for us what would be making the most) of this day away from the office.
Now, in contrast, I at first thought members of the military would observe this day in a different way by thinking about their service a lot, but the more I ruminate on that the more I realize the likely idiocy of such a thought, the tenants of which only highlight how much I don’t “get it.” To primarily assume veterans or current soldiers mark today as a time to think about the sacrifice they’ve had to put forth is no different from that person saying, “Today is the day out of all 365 of ‘em that I stop and really think about all those foxholes in Vietnam I dove into.” In my mind I would think such terrifying experiences would be an unstoppable film reel playing over in a person’s memory every day of the year. I would think you’re more likely to hear a veteran say, “I stop and think about those men I shot all the time. I stop and think every day about being bunkered down and having the horrifying realization that those bullets whizzing over my head were meant for me, that another person was excruciatingly intent on killing me.” But perhaps I’m crazy.
After all, I’ve never been in the military, don’t have direct family members in the military, and don’t run around in “military” circles (whatever those are). But even though I can not necessarily comprehend the sacrifice, it does not lessen my gratitude for it.
The phrase, “War is hell,” is hackneyed and overused, but perhaps that’s because nobody else has been able to come along and fashion a more appropriate label. It says all it needs to say. It is the entire book—beginning and end, front to close. And it is the phrase ever in my mind today.
I have not had to endure hell. I have not had people trying to kill me. I have not had to shoot another human being. I have not had to go through basic training. I have not had to leave my wife and young kids for months at a time. I have not had to repeatedly say potential last goodbyes to my family every time I’m shipped out because I don’t know if I’ll come back on that plane in a seat or a coffin. But that’s what these people do.
And what’s beautiful about that is how our military is a snapshot of what I believe our country should be like (emphasis on the current discrepancy). Somewhere out there is a belief that only good ol’ uneducated, conservative, country boys raised on corn are the trigger-happy souls for the red, white, and blue, but this isn’t true. Our men and women are made up of liberals, conservatives, moms, dads, sons, daughters, Christians, Muslims, hippies, hard-asses, gays, straights, jocks, and nerds, and they’re united. Doesn’t mean the military is without its problems and doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but all of these men and women serve. They’re diverse, they have their disagreements with one another, but they serve us. They are servants. That’s a better diagnosis and heartbeat than most of the individualistic, capitalistic, materialistic schmucks who occupy this nation (of which I am one of many).
I’m not talking about the officials calling the shots and ordering the bombings. God knows there’s something ever-questionable with that crew. I’m simply talking about the men and women who have to carry out their orders; who humbly say, “Yes, sir,” whether they like it or not; who take the to the sky, sea, land, and bunkers even though it may kill them; and who know what hell is like and may have the unfortunate task of living with that back “home” when they return. And they come back to the land they so valiantly defended only to realize they don’t know how to function in a place like this where nobody really understands what they went through. But then again, that’s kind of how our men and women want it, in a way. That’s exactly the thing for which they fought.
It’s okay that today families are grilling out and swimming and arguing over whether the Mavericks will choke against the Heat again in the NBA Finals. It’s okay that a family of four is spending a day at the movies because they’re excited about the blockbuster season getting underway. And while I don’t believe it’s acceptable to go throughout this day without stopping and thinking about our men and women who fight for us, I do think it’s okay if we go today without even a shred of a clue as to what our soldiers have gone/still go through. Because that’s how they want it.
They faced the hell of war so we wouldn’t have to. Okay, sure, there are soldiers who joined up just because after failing in school and the workforce and facing mounting debt, the only option for them was to join the Army, but . . . they still serve. May not be as voluntary as we’d like to think, but they’re still there doing it. The very fact that many of us can spend today in clueless, ignorant, blissful peace is the fruit of their labor. It’s protection, it’s sacrifice, it’s selflessness the likes of which does not lead me to beam with pride (because I sure didn’t do anything), but rather, hang my head in humble thankfulness.
Sure, you could flesh this out into a debate if you wanted to about the ethics of militant warfare, where the hearts and desires of America lie and how that dribbles down to her men and women, but that doesn’t interest me. Not today. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a patriot, don’t understand why we don’t get the hell out of Afghanistan, don’t support war and the taking of human life, and more often than not have an axe to grind with America and her foreign affairs, rather than wave a flag and sing, “God Bless America.” But I’m not so politically and internationally cynical enough to deny that some people feel just like me and, yet, still had to serve their country because they felt called to do that. More often than not I’d label that as “nuts,” but in reality that’s humility and a sacrifice and pain I don’t truly understand.
My understanding of pain only extends as far as the discomfort I’m currently experiencing from last week’s shoulder surgery. For me to sit here and think I don’t need to really give a second, or third, or fourth thought to the men and women who made this cushy country in which I now reside?—well that’s just ludicrous.
You don’t have to be a patriot to appreciate what’s been done for you. You don’t have to get tears in your eyes when someone sings how they’re proud to be an American in order to be moved and thankful for the hell others have waded through so you wouldn’t have to experience it here on your own turf. But, politics aside, it should move you.
The news is fresh with images of turmoil in the Middle East these days, and we can comfortably watch it from afar. But had things gone a certain way back in the forties, then perhaps we’d know all too well what it feels like to have to start your own revolution. That’s not to say we’re above that; we may experience that some decades down the road. Who knows? But for now we enjoy today in peace, and it is the very fact that we can spend it in tranquility that should move us to the utmost gratefulness.
So to those who went before us into the trenches and to those who go now, though we may not always agree with the motives, we agree they are braver beyond what we can understand or know, and for that dumbfounding sacrifice we say, “Thank you.”