Remembering the FallenbyHLD©
Back in the summer of 1997, I needed a summer school credit in order to graduate. So I signed up for ENC 1001, English Composition. There were a variety of writing topics, but one of them was a "saturation" paper. The idea was for a group of students to go to a location as a group, immerse ourselves in the surroundings and write about the things we saw, trying to be as descriptive as possible.
Our group met for lunch at the now-defunct Rio Bravo Cantina on Baymeadows Road in Jacksonville, FL. There were six of us and we ordered our meal and then began the writing assignment. We went on 27 May 1997, the Tuesday after Memorial Day. I wrote this paper for that class as a reflection on what Memorial Day means.
Since then, I wonder how different this essay might be if I wrote it today. After six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the surge of patriotism that occurred after 9/11, I hope that we appreciate the day more than I thought our nation did back in 1997. Also, I now get to work with and for veterans, giving me a much different perspective than I had back in college.
I hope you all will take an opportunity today to thank the family of someone who died in our armed services, whether it was in battle, in training or as residuals from a war wound long ago. They have all earned our gratitude.
They gather among the clamouring waiters, sizzling food and pseudo-ethnic music. At one table, four balding, middle-aged men sit around discussing their company's business. A group of five employees, their skin red from being in the sun the day before, stands around idly, milking the time clock. A family sits at a table immersed in conversation.
Today is the day after Memorial Day; it is the first day back from a long weekend. Nothing more. Any significance of the day before has been long lost, if it even existed at all. Memorial Day has become simply a day off from work, a three-day weekend and an excuse to drink beer while grilling hot dogs.
Established in order to commemorate soldiers fallen in the service of our country, Memorial Day used to be an occasion for parades, speeches and solemn vigils. The local armoury would empty of tanks, trucks and jeeps. Soldiers donned their dress uniforms and regimental colours; in long, straight formations they marched along to the delight of spectators and children. Fighter planes filled the sky, the sound from their jets resonating in the air, and their contrails criss-crossing in the afternoon breeze.
Kind words were spoken of the dead, of how they made the "supreme sacrifice" for their country. Flags were lowered to half-staff. Men, some grizzled old veterans, others self-important politicians, stood at podiums and made speeches honouring those who died in all the wars America has fought. It used to be a day of patriotism and nationalistic spirit. Unlike Flag Day, or Independence Day, Memorial Day was not for America's collective vanity; it was not a day to pat ourselves on the back and espouse all the ways Americans dominate global affairs. Nor was it for recognising the service of all the men and woman who carried the nation's colours into battle like Veteran's Day.
Memorial Day was a reflective time. A day when we mourned those killed serving the Stars and Stripes. Flags adorned the graves of soldiers returned from foreign lands where they died. Mothers, sisters, brothers, widows, children and descendants of dead warriors gathered at grave sites to hold on to fleeting memories and wonder, "What might have been . . ."
That was then. Today, four men sit at a table, devouring a lunch charged to a corporate expense account. Their conversation is all business; they left the office, but brought their work to the table. All four are balding, their hair prematurely grey. Each wears a shirt and tie, and they all speak in low, hurried tones. The men talk about money: how to make it, how to hoard it, how to generate more. When the conversation strays, it is only to reach a consensus that the three-day weekend interrupted their stock trading.
Memorial Day inconvenienced these men. They couldn't stop for one day to honour the tens of thousands of men and women who died so they could trade freely in a market economy. In the middle of the 19th Century, economic differences divided this country into two warring factions. One side was mired in an anachronistic command economy, its serfs bonded only because of the colour of their skin. The other side, though no less racist, fought for a truly free market, a fledgling industrial economy which formed the basis for these men's livelihood.
On 13 December 1862, the two sides met on a hill outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was cold, and snow covered the ground. Rebel troops held a high stone wall, their guns pointed down at an army of blue-clad Federal forces. Eight thousand men were butchered on that hill; in fifteen separate charges, not one Union soldier reached the crest. Thirty yards from the Confederate line, the mangled body of a Union officer lay in the snow, his arms clutching the battle standard, and his blood poured out on the frozen ground. One hundred and thirty years later, his death, and the other 300,000 Union dead from the Civil War, would only inconvenience four commodity traders.
Next to the kitchen, five employees stand around making conversation and engaging in idle gossip. Three are sunburned, their faces and arms red and warm to the touch. They spent the previous day at the beach, sunning themselves and looking for summer consorts. The other two complain about having to work the day before; their holiday was no holiday at all. Rather it was another day of food service and hard work for minimum wage and tips.
All five employees are young men. The oldest looks to be in his late-twenties; he is the most tanned and the only one to wear a wedding band. The youngest appears to be straight out of high school, his eyes wide at the stories of his older companions. Their conversation revolves around the beach and girls. None of them care about the soldiers and sailors who died so their afternoons could be filled with incessant prattle rather than worrying about whether or not the secret police were watching them.
Of the five young men, none were subjected to conscription. Their generational identity was not founded in wartime. Eighty years ago, another generation of young men came of age in the horrific trenches of the First World War. In the depths of the Argonne Forest, a Lance Corporal, younger than most of the five restaurant employees, was killed when a German mortar exploded in front of him. Blinded and with both arms shattered, the Lance Corporal lay on the field for hours waiting to die. None of these men, boys really, know the reality of war. They probably couldn't find the Argonne Forest on a map. To them, the death of World War I is an alien spectre, present only in dusty history books and an extra day at the beginning of the summer to work or look for girls at the beach.
Across the room, under a speaker blaring taped Mexican music, a family enjoys a quick lunch together. Between bites, a man in his mid-thirties glances nervously at his watch, obviously worried whether or not he'll make it back to the office on time. His wife sits next to him, constantly scolding him to eat slower. Their young daughter is strapped to her booster chair, enjoying the newness and unfamiliarity of a strange restaurant. The man is torn between enjoying a lunch with his family and needing to be back at work so not to upset his boss. None of the three appreciate the day before; the little girl is too innocent to know the face of war, and her parents young enough not to have been subjected to the draft.
At the same table sits an older couple, the little girl's grandparents visiting for the weekend. The woman sits quietly, her hand resting on her husband's shoulder. The grandfather is a gentle man who smiles with a warm, caring glow. He dotes on his son's daughter, his hands softly caressing her blond hair. Of all the people in this place, he most appreciates the day before. On his lapel, he wears a pin shaped into an American flag blowing in the wind.
His generation waged the most savage war the human race has ever known. Thirty-five million people, most of them Russians and Germans, perished in that war. One of those dead was a twenty-three year old Navy Lieutenant who flew a Devastator torpedo-bomber. At the Battle of Midway in 1942, he led a flight of planes in an attack on the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. Of the sixteen planes in his squadron, fifteen were destroyed, all but one of their forty-five crewmen killed. None of their torpedoes hit the carrier.
The grandfather might have known that Lieutenant. Perhaps he knew another Navy sailor or Marine Corps machine-gunner or Army GI who didn't make it home. Perhaps he buried his best friend at Monte Casino, Italy in 1944. No one from that generation was untouched by the Second World War.
The generation which followed, his son's peers, waged their own war in the jungles of Vietnam. Instead of solidarity, the Vietnam War raised only distrust, divisiveness and disillusionment. The grandfather remembers friends who died for a noble cause: the fight against tyranny, despotism and aggression. His son came of age during and after a war fought without clear goals; their dead were not sacrificed for freedom, but for the whims of politicians.
What is Memorial Day about? As a nation, we no longer mourn our dead together. The President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown, but everyone else is too busy watching the beach report or the rain-delayed Indy 500. There are parades, but even these are sparsely attended. Privately, old soldiers go to the graves of their fallen comrades, but the public does not truly care. Killing has become antiseptic and distant; wars are fought like video games, the highlights shown on CNN.
The day memorialising our heroes is simply another paid holiday. It is the first weekend of the summer season. It is time for the NBA Finals and auto racing. Yet somewhere, a select few appreciate the sacrifice made by thousands of American servicemen and women. The rest of us just need a little reminding of the true meaning for the day.
The family finishes their lunch. The check is paid, the leftovers stuffed into Styrofoam containers. Together the five stand, gather their things and walk towards the exit. The grandmother takes her husband's arm in one hand and reaches for her son with the other. The grandfather cradles the little girl in his arms, saying how much he loves her. The mother kisses her husband on the cheek and tells him to hurry back to work.
Maybe Memorial Day is obsolete, a relic of the past. It has become a day to remember a litany of names, but not people. In thirty years, the dead of the Second World War and Vietnam will be forgotten, their sons and daughters dying themselves. War itself has become a thing of years past. Superpowers no longer go to war; instead they engage in "police actions" and "peacekeeping missions". Only Third World nations engage in war: Liberia, Congo, Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia.
That is tomorrow. Today we memorialise our dead by going to the beach en masse or cooking out on the back porch and gorging ourselves on hamburgers and beer. One family, together for a long weekend, took an extra day to spend an hour in each others' presence before grandma and grandpa head home. They made it a point to be a family for the holiday; three generations, separated by different experiences, but connected by blood. Isn't that what our hallowed dead sacrificed themselves for?