Memorial Day weekend always leaves me feeling a little weird. Although for many it has lost its function, a remembrance for our 1.2 million war dead, I remember.
I reflect upon the real sacrifices made by fallen soldiers and their families. I remember growing up in a Gold Star family, torn by the loss of my uncle in Korea. It was a wound that never healed, vividly and painfully remembered by my grandmother. So what, really, that he won the Distinguished Service Cross on the last day of his seventeen year long life. He left behind a family that grieved for decades.
I think about Robert Leckie’s stunning poem, “The Battle of the Tenaru.” Such power in his words, written while his ears were still numbed by shot and shell. Verses such as this:
Speak to the Lord for our comrades,
Killed when the battle seemed lost.
They went to meet a bright defeat-
The hero’s holocaust.
Unbelievable, the coursing, draining power of close combat. Seeing the wounded, hearing men’s hoarse cries. Beholding the dead. Greeting the new dawn with thanks that it’s not you, lying in a heap.
False is the vaunt of the victor,
Empty our living pride.
For those who fell there is no hell-
Not for the brave who died.
The tombstone illustrated above is a simple veteran’s stone, typical of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. It belongs to my grandpa’s grandpa, a survivor of a vicious and mostly forgotten mini-civil war in Minnesota. I ask myself what his life was like. Was he happy. Or did he die bitter and mostly forgotten, to lay in St. Peter’s cemetery in the tiny town of Mendota, Minnesota.
I’ll never know.
So, this Memorial Day I think of the long line of those who have gone before me, who fought for all sides, for centuries.
The blue-painted Scot, who faced the Romans. The Swiss mercenary. The Dakota man who counted coup. The English peasant who stretched his bow at Agincourt. The French peasant who received his arrow. A German who marched with the Teutonic Knights. A citizen of the Crown, who marched with Washington. A man taken prisoner in Winchester, Virginia. A Dutch officer who sweltered in Indonesia. A kid who died on a hill in Korea.
They are all there, in the long, sorrowful line.
Readers worldwide: Memorial Day belongs to you, as well. We are your cousins, near and distant.
Many from the Han have fought beneath the Stars and Stripes. Descendants of the proud Zulu have worn the American Combat V. Suleiman’s children have bled out and died beneath the starry flag. Many a Spanish speaker has received the hateful, flying steel and worn the Purple Heart to their grave. Red Army veterans who fought in both Afghanistan wars. There isn’t an ethnicity on the planet that hasn’t marched with Uncle Sam, many to die while doing so.
You get the idea.
So as I ponder Memorial Day this year, I’d like for you all to give it some thought as well. Spare some thought as well to our brothers in the Ukraine, who fight and die as millions have a cheerful barbecue.
For some, Memorial Day is every day.