Memorial Day: It Is for Us, the Living

Memorial Day is a day for remembrance and commemoration of those who have died in military service – not least in America’s perpetual wars. Even more, though, should it be a time for reflection and reevaluation of the warring impulse and the human price it exacts. I speak as one whose life journey has progressed from small-town boy possessed of patriotic impulses and martial dreams, to eager and ambitious military officer, to dutiful practitioner of failed war, to disillusioned military officer, to unregenerate opponent of all war, whatever its form or purpose.

My journey began when I left home for West Point. I was then captive of an unquestioningly patriotic mentality bestowed on me, unknowingly, by my high school principal. Picture this woman – in her Nurse Ratched shoes; her hair in a severe perm that prefigured Ruth Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby and Dana Carvey’s Church Lady; her physique the envy of offensive linemen everywhere; her demeanor akin to Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi. Addressing us, her charges, in our cramped high school auditorium, she sought to fan the flames of fiery football fanaticism (thank you, gods of alliteration) by relating her experience at that year’s Sugar Bowl. Some around her had failed to stand for the playing of the National Anthem. At which point, she barked – she didn’t just speak, she barked (doggedly) – “If there are any red-blooded Americans among you, STAND UP!”

I internalized that attitude and carried it with me to West Point. There, I further internalized what I would take with me into combat in Vietnam – the words of the Academy hymn, The Corps: “The Corps, bareheaded, salute it, with eyes up, thanking our God/That we of the Corps are treading, where they of the Corps have trod. . . . We sons of today, we salute you, you sons of an earlier day/We follow close order behind you, where you have pointed the way. . . . Grip hands, tho’ it be from the shadows, while we swear as you did of yore/Or living, or dying, to honor, the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.”

At that stage of my journey, I truly epitomized the words of Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had said famously in an 1884 Memorial Day oration: “In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”

For many of those of us who were children of the ’50s and ’60s, the defining event of our lives was the Vietnam War. Vietnam was a feckless, ignominious, inglorious war, markedly unlike what we have been led to believe, propagandistically, was the glorious World War waged by the Greatest Generation of our parents. “The eastern world, it is explodin’/Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’/You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’/You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’.” Thus spake Barry McGuire.

As we know only too well, Vietnam divided us as a nation and as a generation. It still does. “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son/It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son/It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one.” Thus spake John Fogerty.

Vietnam was where I grew up – metamorphosing overnight, Bruce Banner-like, from a true-believing novitiate masquerading as a manly man wrapped in the flag of patriotic fervor. I became 1 Corinthians 13:11 incarnate: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I came back from Vietnam chastened, disenchanted, disillusioned, angry; but also reflective where before I hadn’t been.

I came to realize, for starters, that I and others like me in uniform were but expendable pawns – corporeal commodities – in the manipulative hands of self-serving politicians and generals. Had I been more than only dimly aware of William Ernest Henley’s venerable Victorian poem Invictus, I would have taken more pause to reflect: “It matters not how strait the gate/How charged with punishments the scroll/I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.”

Even the very few among us who could claim to be captains of their souls – I wasn’t among them – were in no sense masters of their fate. Our fates were always determined for us by hapless superiors who sat atop us, indifferently, in the bureaucratic, political, and metaphysical chains of command. Nothing has changed.

I also came to realize that the antipathy I theretofore had felt toward those who hadn’t served was misplaced small-mindedness that said more about me than about them. “They also serve who only stand and wait,” said English poet John Milton. True in some measure, but. . . . My rethinking had nothing to do with those who hadn’t served and had otherwise done nothing, out of laziness, apathy, or cowardice. It had everything to do with those who hadn’t served but had done something – who had acted in principled opposition to the established militaristic order, rather than acquiescing silently, thoughtlessly, neglectfully. Had it not been for the anti-war movement, I concluded then (and believe even more strongly now), we might never have extricated ourselves from that most wasteful and useless mother of all quagmires, whose spawn remain with us still.

My third epiphany was the realization that, though there are some exceptions, those who fight wars – and die in them – are motivated not by grandiose aims, like Freedom, but by the self-interested will to survive. President Lincoln at Gettysburg saluted those who died there – and, by implication, all who die in war – for giving their last full measure of devotion. What else, of course, could he say? Let us not, though, glorify what isn’t glorious. Let us not salute what isn’t salutary. Let us not ennoble what is ignoble. Let us not praise what isn’t praiseworthy. In such ways do we seek to make killing and dying respectable and honorable, which they aren’t.

As for me, I came to admit that my own motives were unforgivably impure. It would be easy for me to say, as most veterans do, that I served for only the right reasons – duty and honor and country, to invoke the motto of my alma mater. But that would be dishonest and self-serving. I had stars in my eyes – general’s stars – and a thirst for heroism and recognition in my soul. I was not – and am not – alone.

I volunteered. Most others didn’t. They were there because they were there – not because they wanted to be, but because they had to be. I came back alive. Many others didn’t. Where they gave their lives, they did so not so much because they sacrificed as because they were sacrificed. Their devotion, where it existed, was to one thing and one thing only – survival, their own and that of their comrades – not to anything higher, because there is nothing higher.

Lincoln observed that the world would little note nor long remember what he said there – or, for that matter, what we say here. For us, today, that is true. For him, it turned out to be quite wrong. But, he continued, the world could never forget what those who gave their lives had done. On this, he was massively wrong. The world consistently and cavalierly does forget – dismissively so. War forever persists – perpetrated always by the privileged, prosecuted by the few, ignored by the many (whose empty bow, today, to those who serve is the limp, insincere platitude, “Thanks for your service”).

As Taps sounds on Memorial Day, we do well to contemplate not the words now appended to its plaintive notes – “Day is done, gone the sun/From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky/All is well, safely rest/God is nigh” – but instead the last stanza of the West Point Alma Mater – “And when our work is done/Our course on earth is run/May it be said, ‘Well done/Be thou at peace.’”

“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” observed philosopher George Santayana. That may be so, but it need not be. War’s dead do not have, nor should they have, dominion over peace – even though they have been relieved of the burden of waging life’s eternal struggles. Rather is peace both challenge and obligation for the living. It is for us the living, said Lincoln, to dedicate ourselves anew to the great task remaining before us. For him, that meant a new birth of freedom. For us, it is, in the grandest sense, the creation of an enduring peace we have yet to experience – and an accompanying rejection of war as a preferred instrument of policy that leads, inexorably, to the killing and dying the living thereafter glorify and perpetuate.

In a smaller, more intimate sense, the great task before us of achieving lasting peace is to recognize and reward the humanity of humanity, to embrace those around us whose contributions we recognize by telling them so now – when it matters. A verse I learned as a young man should be our call to action, as well as our enduring credo: “When with pleasure you are viewing/Any work a man is doing/And you like him or you love him/Tell him now. . . . If you feel that praise is due him/Now’s the time to tell it to him/Cause a man can’t read his tombstone when he’s dead.”

So, on this Memorial Day and future Memorial Days, don’t waste words on the dead. They can’t hear us, and they have nothing, short of inspiration, to offer. If there is anyone or anything to be memorialized and honored, it is our brethren, still living, for they are the only ones capable of investing our lives with new meaning and turning latent hope into manifest reality. Act thou for peace.