A View From the Cheap Seats

May 30, 2007

Honoring Their Memory

Filed under: Iraq,National — trzupek @ 2:26 am


Honoring Their Memory
By: Rich Trzupek

I realize that I’m in the minority here, with what I’m about to write. I’m sure that’s true–today. But I’m not certain I would have been in the minority 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.

Memorial Day has always been the most sacred of days, for me. It’s a day during which we remember everyone who risked it all–who gave their all–for a cause much bigger then themselves.

There’s something uplifting about that. We remember those who fell and, at the same time, we also honor those who survived. I know the latter is not the intent behind Memorial Day, but it’s inevitable. There’s no avoiding it.

The vets who turn out, year after year, to honor their fallen comrades, radiate a particular feeling that only they can explain: “There but for the Grace of God go I.” They remember, so intensely, their friends who died too young and they know that the whims of fate could have easily led to an entirely different result. They stand there, remembering their friends, when it could too easily have been the other way around.

We have always honored the memory of those who fell in service of our nation, but the nature of the tribute has changed over the years. Or so it seems to me.

Once upon a time, we praised them for what they accomplished. Hundreds of thousands fell in the Civil War. We mourned the dead, but we also said that their sacrifice had been an indispensible part of accomplishing something remarkable: holding the country together and beginning to correct injustices done to an entire race.

Tons of thousands fell fighting Hitler and Tojo. We honored them and we honored the cause they fought for in equal measure. Their sacrifice, we said, had not been in vain.
It’s different today. We honor the person, but many of us don’t want to hear about the cause. Before Viet Nam, the nation remembered the person and reflected on the cause that person had fought for. After Viet Nam, the dead became pitiful in many eyes– sacrificial lambs for a hopeless cause.

And I wonder: Have we grown to be realistic or cynical?

I’m alone here. I know that. But is life that precious? Our time on this earth is so damn short.

It seems as though we are so afraid of death that we judge any sacrifice in vain these days, except for those who die quietly in their sleep of natural causes after a century on earth.
I’m not pretending that I’m not afraid of dying. Of course I am. Yet, by the measure of eternity does the exact span of our lives really matter that much? If we do indeed live forever, then this form of existence is not even a blink in time. A life that ends after 20
years is tragic, but if that life ends in pursuit of a cause, larger than any of us, should that not matter? Should we not then do more then mourn, should we not honor?

Look, I’m not defending war as a rational means to solve our problems. But the fact is that part of being human is dealing with a whole world of irrational behavior. It’s part of what makes life wonderful, even as it makes life exasperating and, sometimes, tragic.

There may come a day when we eradicate violence from the world, but it ain’t happening today, or tomorrow, or next week. Until then, there will be people who use violence for selfish ends. We call these people evil. And, fortunately, there are people who have been willing to step up and respond with violence to combat evil. We call these people heroes. Or we used to.

Wars grew especially unpopular in this country about the time we got good at it. Up to (and including) World War II, the U.S. was always an underdog of sorts. The world believed we were to self-centered, too addicted to our wealth and comfort to make a difference in something that demanded as much self-sacrifice as armed conflict.

That changed after 1945. The spirit of the citizen soldier was finally recognized and the will and skill of the nation that supported the citizen soldier demanded respect.

And yet, once we had shown–beyond any doubt–that we could and would fight effectively for freedom, we began to minimize the efforts of the individuals who made that possible, on the front lines. We transformed, in the minds of many, from underdog to bully. In fact, we were never either. We were, and are, simply a nation that’s willing to stand up for what we believe is right and we possess the skill to stand up strongly.

Today, we mourn over 3,000 who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is fitting and proper that we do so. Yet, compared to other wars, that’s a remarkably low number of fatalities, and it’s drop in the bucket compared to the number of innocent civilians who have died at the hands of dictators and in the name of genocide and opression in places like Iraq, Sudan and Cambodia.

We should remember every veteran who falls. We should shed tears for each life cut tragically short. But, on this Memorial Day–and every day–we should not confuse the tragedy of death with the triumph of spirit. Both matter and both should be honored, today and every day.


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