Memorial Day

Memorial and Veterans’ Day have always meant a lot to me. Perhaps it is because of my Dad’s unabashed patriotism, nothing flashy, but my Dad was always clear that he saw his career in the military (Army Air Force then Air Force) as being more than about a good way to make a paycheck. He felt that he was helping to keep the United States of America free. Even when the protests of the Vietnam War era became more and more common, when the military was reviled, he felt that his work was important. He supported my protests against the government because he felt that that was a crucial part of what America is all about. He told me he thought I was nuts, but that he could understand that I had my reasons for challenging the government. He only demanded civility, not mindless acquiescence. He couldn’t understand where my liberal streak came from but accepted that I saw things differently.
I have long wondered where my perspective came from. My siblings’ political views tend towards the conservative side of the continuum, much like my parents’ views were. Given that I like thinking about thinking , over time, I have come to focus on a particular period in my life, and a particular cluster of events as being seminal in the direction my politics took.
We lived in France in the early sixties, first near Metz then in Chambley. We traveled widely and took advantage of the opportunity to learn about another country and culture. We had numerous “lessons” in how to be careful when we hiked or went into fields. We were all made aware that the area of France in which we lived had been a battleground for time immemorial. World Wars I and II were only the most recent wars that had raged through the area. When we lived in Chambley a local farmer plowed up the remains of a soldier from the Franco-Prussian war. We had to be aware that there was still unexploded ordnance hidden under the soil and we learned how to behave and who to call if we found anything suspicious. We visited Verdun where every visitor is warned not to walk off the marked trails because of the unexploded ordnance. I was transfixed by the trench with bayonets. I was told that the trench contained the bodies of French Soldiers who had been killed and buried by bombs exploding around them, that their bayonets were left as their grave markers.
I was a Girl Scout (and proud of it) and participated in every activity offered. It was fun and I liked the uniform, especially the Cadette uniform, tailored green skirt, pressed white blouse, white gloves, and my sash. I had the privilege to to be part of the honor guard for Memorial Day rituals at American Military Cemeteries near Metz.
St. Mihiel cemetery is a U.S. cemetery for soldiers of WWI. It is one of many located through Europe and it is the resting place of around 4,000 Americans who died in fighting in the area. It is not the only American Cemetery in the Alsace Lorraine region. I stood at attention and at parade rest looking out over 4000 crosses. Each cross represented someone’s father, son, brother.
I also served in an honor guard at the Ossuary of Douaumont where the bones of over 100,000 soldiers lie jumbled together. The bones are literally jumbled together, not stacked neatly. All those bones fill the ossuary, all those bones were soldiers.
My family visited military cemeteries all over Europe. The cemetery in Luxembourg, where Patton still leads his troops is beautiful and sad.
Those visits were part of the history lessons my Dad “taught” us. I don’t know if the lesson I learned was the one Dad wanted to convey, but my 10, 11, 12 year old selves took away the knowledge that war is costly, more expensive than anything I could think of, and that if one engages in war, then it must be only to protect that which is worth even more. As time went on and I grew older, I realized that one of the tragedies of war is that we sometimes don’t know the worth of that being protected until after the fact.
I guess questioning the worth of what we fought for in Vietnam became a part of my world view. My questions begat more questions and I didn’t agree that we were fighting for freedom and democracy and I couldn’t support the war. But I recognized that my Dad and my friends’ Dads, and all those other soldiers were engaged in something in which they believed, supporting the Constitution of the United States. They weren’t mindless automatons, they were not ignorant of the cost, they supported something they believed transcended the machinations of politics. My argument was with the policy makers and Johnson’s “military industrial complex”, not with the men and women who put their lives on the line for what they believed was right.
My heart cries when I realize that there are more crosses, Stars of David, Crescent Moons, Pentacles, being added every day to our military cemeteries. I see my students take breaks in their studies when they are deployed to Afghanistan, Iran, the border between the United States and Mexico. They don’t have a choice, they can’t refuse service because this deployment furthers an unjust cause and accept service because that is a just war. They go. I see my students falter when their spouse, sibling or child is deployed. They can’t keep them home because this deployment furthers an unjust cause and accept their deployment because that is a just war. They have to let them go.
Memorial Day is so important. It is so much more than a day off. It is a day to reflect on those who have given their lives for something more and a day to reflect on whether that “something more” is worth the price we have asked them to pay, that we all pay.
Thank you for your service, all you warriors past and present. Nos momento et honorare te.

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