Reflections On Memorial Day

Yesterday I did as I have for the last two years, I went to the South Florida National Cemetery with my daughters. We walked among the headstones, the girls laid flowers and said a prayer at random graves. I read the headstones and pondered who these strangers were, what their lives had meant, and whether we, as a nation, continue to be worthy of the sacrifices they made in their lifetimes.

Our cemetery is relatively new, only 5 years or so, but it is already full of headstones. Almost all are veterans who served and returned home to live their lives. Most had lived long lives, but there were some who were younger than me, who served when I served, and who died far too young. There are a few, less than a dozen, who were KIA in the Long War. One is a Marine who was killed just a few days before Memorial Day 2011. His grave was still fresh when I first brought my daughters to the cemetery two years ago.

I spent the rest of the day thinking, perhaps too hard and about too much. Then I found the following via Marines of Helmand and Anbar on Facebook. There is little more to be said.

Via fellow warrior Ben Shaw

Nothing sours one’s appreciation of a significant patriotic holiday like working full time with veterans. Having done just that for three years through the ebb and flow of cynicism and burnout has led to such bold pronouncements as, “the happiest, healthiest veteran is the one you can’t find” and “most veterans will serve honorably and go back to being the losers they already were.” Even the more intelligent remarks, like, “war doesn’t break people; life does, and some of the broken people make their way into the military,” still suggests a diminished opinion of military service itself, servicemembers and veterans. It can also contagiously extend to holidays.

Every year people endure countless articles, sermons and ceremonies about how veterans are heroes and we should honor them always and remember the fallen and so forth. Then awash in flag-waving fervor, sincere members of the public seek out veterans and wish us a Happy Memorial Day. In my darker moments, I will remind them that Veterans Day in November is my day and Memorial Day in May is for the dead veterans and – therefore – they’re wishing me a happy Dead Veterans Day, but better that than Happy Barbeque to Kick Off the Summer Day, I suppose. They usually leave at this point. I am jaded, possibly.

I think part of the problem is that the pendulum has swung too far for me. In the past, I (like many veterans) used Memorial Day as an opportunity to go around acting somber and feeling sorry for myself under the guise of grieving the fallen (a number get completely drunk and claim it somehow honors the dead). Insofar as my mood garnered me the attention or the respectful distance I sought, I’d say it was successful. Little of it had anything to do with the fallen. I was selfish. Now, though, I vacillate between pragmatism and cynicism.

I served in a different generation of warrior than my forebears. And as much as its modern participants will argue that war is still hell and totally awful, they forget that military doctrine and practice have shifted considerably. These days, a man going down is a catastrophe and usually – perhaps always – halts whatever mission they were undertaking. Seventy years ago, men going down was just as awful, but absolutely routine. Men go to war and, invariably, fewer of them come home. We forget that. Of course they lost comrades. Today, I wonder if we consider it a notable exception.

For the record, I did serve in a war, and I did lose friends. But I temper my grief with the knowledge that every last one of us volunteered – many of us with the express purpose of going to war. Some of them I deeply respected and a few I considered friends. Every single one of them left behind families. I miss them, and I grieve for their families. But as for us, we volunteered. And then, I superimpose that knowledge onto Memorial Day itself.

War, though, didn’t always look like this. War involved citizens who were mostly called up by their nation, who served honorably even though they most certainly did not volunteer and – oftentimes – ran headlong into imminent danger because it was the honorable thing to do. Not because they wanted a taste of the action. They charged because their country asked them to.

And with men falling all around them, they were painfully aware of their own mortality. Think, as an example, that the capture of Iwo Jima cost the lives of just under 7,000 Marines and Soldiers. In comparison, the Global War on Terror has claimed less than that in its decade-long entirety. These days, we mostly expect to come home. Back then, heaven only knew. And for over 400,000, they did not. They’re buried throughout most of the free world – free largely because of their sacrifice.

The more sensitive among us will hang a US flag today and think quite highly of ourselves for our show of seasonal patriotism. I’ve displayed a flag too, actually. But I think our debt extends beyond a flag, a Mass, a short ceremony, or a stupid barbeque.

I believe it’s a familial responsibility. If I find admirable the men who set aside their innate sense of self and pushed forward while their buddies dropped and the dying screamed, then it is my duty to demonstrate character of the same sort. It begins with honoring those who have already exhibited it, and continues with ensuring that our own sons see us do it. It continues with raising them to possess the same honor as those who came before us, and culminates with praying to God that they never have cause to exercise it. Even fear of losing them shouldn’t dissuade us.

If theirs is hallowed ground and the dead brave men, then let us raise more of them, and let them know what honor is. That should they one day walk among the fallen, they will do so as equals.

Copyright © Ben Shaw, 2013.



  1. 1
    LC ShadowFox growls and barks:

    I don’t know Crunchie. I can somewhat get his anger but still. Those people wishing him a Happy Memorial Day are just products of the society that raised them. You know for certain no school theses days are teaching anything about Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Even in the depths of their ignorance though those people were trying and their hearts were in the right place. What they at least tried to give him is a damn sight more than our brothers getting off the plane from Saigon got.

    I think Ben needs to attend group, for a while, and work out those demons he’s holding inside.

  2. 2

    LC ShadowFox @ #:
    I think that’s what he was getting at ShadowFox, that society has failed in teaching our people what it’s all about. And I agree that at least people are trying, and it is definitely a damned sight more than Vietnam vets got, or hell even my own generation.

    There is some bitterness there as well, which is one of the reasons it resonated with me yesterday. A good friend of mine, retired USMC Gunny who runs the local Wounded Warriors of South Florida actually posted that he has come to hate the very country that he fought for. For me, part of the bitterness I felt was in reflecting on what all those men, my brothers, suffered for, and that now it’s being systematically and purposefully destroyed.

    On the day we honor their sacrifice the last thing you want to creep into your head is “Was it all worth it?” That’s the first time in my life I have ever asked myself that, because before the answer was always clear.

  3. 3
    LC Sir Rurik, K.o.E. growls and barks:

    LC ShadowFox @ #:
    LC 0311 Sir Crunchie I.M.H., K.o.E.@ #:

    I can sort of understand too. As you say some of those people mean well. But happy Memorial Day? How fuckin clueless! Would they wish someone a Happy Anniversary on the anniversary of the death of a friend’s close family member? Sadly, probably, yes. Fuckin’ Valley Speak that just makes noises. I would wish them an “Enjoy your new colostomy!” But I cannot hate them for all that, they’re not worthy of hate – except for the fact that they’re probably Obama voters, multiple offender category.

    Yes, we all have our demons. I’ve gotten pretty friendly with mine. Actually, they’re better company than the aging Hippies or Junior Obama Voters. One of those demons has a Bad Attitude, and another has a perpetual Case of the Ass. Yet another loves scorn. They’re housebroken, and bathe, but reluctant to polish shoes. Mr. Sarcastic Demon mutters something about been there and done that, and still got dropped for fifty. Yesterday I did what I always do, rallied with my PGR brothers and went to stand flag line for ceremonies at both our local cemeteries, then went round for the annual honor vigil at SPC Herried’s tomb, not feeling specially bitter or sorry for myself. Well except for the weather. Saturday we took at least 6.5 inches of rain, up to 10 inches in places, including my basement. Okay, I was feeling pretty damn bitter about that. If I had wanted the fuckin’ monsoon, I coulda fuclin’ reenlisted.

  4. 4
    Emperor Misha I growls and barks:

    What Crunchie and Rurik said, really.

    I get the same thing every year: “Happy Memorial Day”, and I really have to remind myself of the incontrovertible fact that the ones who say it to me mean well in order to keep me from giving them a piece of my mind. My issue is not with them, it’s with the fact that our society has been taught that Memorial Day is a day off work with BBQ to mark the beginning of summer and not what it really, truly stands for. So I wince inside and say thanks. Can’t quite bring myself to say “and to you too”, though.

    My other beef is when they add “thank you for your service” and, again, I know that it’s the intent that counts, but still. I want so badly to say “appreciate it, but that’s for Veteran’s Day. Today you should be thanking the ones you can’t thank, like my buddy Sonny.”

    Still, bottom line is: It’s the intent that matters and, as you alluded to, ShadowFox, I’m glad that we live in a society where gratitude is still a thing, even if it comes out awkwardly at times. I’d rather be thanked inappropriately with good intentions than spat upon. Not because I believe I’m owed any thanks at all, I didn’t do anything special and certainly not anything that nobody else would have done or did, but because it warms my heart to know that military service is not despised and is, in fact, appreciated. By the people who matter, anyways. The rest can go fuck themselves. With a nine iron wrapped in razor wire.

  5. 5
    dasbow growls and barks:

    At least people are still recognizing that it’s Memorial Day, and people are just used to acknowledging holidays with a greeting such as ‘happy’ or ‘merry’. If I could think of a good word or phrase to use that fits the solemnity of the day I would. Whenever anyone wants to thank me for serving on Memorial Day, I simply say “thank you for the kind thoughts, but it’s not my day. It belongs to those that aren’t with us anymore.” You can be pleasant and gently corrective at the same time.

  6. 6

    dasbow says:

    If I could think of a good word or phrase to use that fits the solemnity of the day I would.

    Blessed Memorial Day is the closest I have come up with. dasbow says:

    I simply say “thank you for the kind thoughts, but it’s not my day. It belongs to those that aren’t with us anymore.” You can be pleasant and gently corrective at the same time.


  7. 7
    LC Sir Rurik, K.o.E. growls and barks:

    When I get the “Thank you for your service”, my usual response is “It was my privilege and honor”.
    I have taken to wearing my medals, not just the ribbon bar, but the full dangly gongy things on my suit three times a year – Memorial Day, Veterans Day, the anniversary of my discharge, and also to the polls on Election Day. If queried, I explain that I wear my medals for those who cannot wear theirs. Much like the old Russian and British vets do. If someone feels a bit awkward, well its their problem, and maybe they deserve it.