Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Memories

I have always had an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day. My dad served in the Air Force so we were never far away from a conversation about the sacrifices others made so that we could live in freedom. We went to memorials and statues and cemeteries. We often made our way to Washington D.C., where it's impossible not to be aware of the sacrifices made--so many and of so many kinds--for the sake of freedom.

As I got older, I wanted to be a pacifist, and so, Memorial Day became more difficult. I've read my history, though, and I realize how often war, even if held as the last resort, has been necessary.

It is impossible not to realize the cost of war. There's the money, of course, and the death of soldiers. We may forget the other costs: the families of military members, the injured veterans, the civilians damaged in so many ways, peace of all kinds shattered.

So, on this day which has become for so many of us just an excuse to have a holiday, let us pause to reflect and remember. If we're safe right now, let us pause for a moment of gratitude. Let us remember that we've still got lots of military people serving in dangerous places--and even if they're not in dangerous places, a person can be hacked to death in a peacetime city like London.

On Saturday, I drove home from spin class, and I saw Boy Scouts planting flags in a cemetery.  It wasn't a military site, but I appreciated that they took time to do it.  It made me wonder where the nearest military cemetery would be down here at the tip of America.

This morning, I'm thinking of the trip to France that I took with my parents in 2005.  We stopped at various military cemeteries, huge fields of white marble crosses, a staggering vista, mostly WWI dead.  I thought of all the times I taught the literature of World War I.  I thought of how hard it is for modern readers to understand how soul shattering it was to endure the loss of human life wrought by WWI.  We have those kind of horrors delivered to our screens on an almost daily basis if we're not careful.  Those WWI citizens had never seen anything like it.

I think of European and British women who were young at the time of WWI.  We talk about a generation of young men lost to WWI, and we often think it's hyperbole.  It is not.  I always tell my students, "Look around this class.  Imagine that in the course of a year or two, every male in this class was killed.  Imagine that you're one of the women left behind.  How does that affect you?"

It's still not as effective as a field trip to those French cemeteries would be.

I realize that this holiday is fraught with pitfalls of all sorts.  Many of us, especially those of us who don't live in places with much military presence, run the risk of forgetting the meaning of this holiday, as we fire up our grills or go to the beach or simply catch up on our laundry.  It's also a holiday that holds an opposite risk:  those of us not forgetting the holiday might go too far the other direction, with a kind of shallow patriotism.

Sure, it's easy to fly the flag, or to wear a patriotic pin or scarf or hat.  But how many of us are really prepared to put our lives on the line for something as abstract as honor?  How many of us would defend our country?

Sure, we say we would, and if we had war ships off our coast, I have no doubt that we would.  But based on all the badmouthing of our country that I often hear, I'm not willing to say that there's deep support for the military.  If a young person told you that he/she was joining the military, would you celebrate or mourn?

We could do so much more that engage in the shallow patriotism of wearing red, white, and blue. We could prepare a care package. We could put a flower on a military grave. We could write a card. We could give money to organizations that care for active service people and/or veterans.

We could read Wilfred Owen (go here) and think about the price that has been paid so that we have these choices, to celebrate or not to celebrate, how to spend our days. We could resolve to move through our days with the sense that our opportunities don't come to us for free, to move with gratitude that we have opportunities that those dying in the mud did not live to see.

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