I am working Memorial Day this year. Whether I am at work or taking the day off does not impact my ability to remember soldiers who have died. I think of the dead all the time. I know this day is set aside to think about a particular category of the dead and believe me, I do. But it’s almost impossible to think about anything according to prescribed rules. The mind wanders off the paved path and jumps fences into forbidden territory.
We have the strange ability, we humans, to think about what we are thinking about. On Memorial Day, what we are supposed to think is how heroic, how brave, how selfless were the men and women who went to war to fight for our freedom, keeping the bad guys from killing us or enslaving us without regard for their own lives. We are supposed to think this sort of thing and believe it without question or irony.
We are not supposed to ask whether the government had any business sending them to another country in the first place to die in combat or by accident or suicide or torture. We are not supposed to wonder how many of them really wanted to be there. We are not supposed to question whether they were all heroes. We are supposed to, as good appreciative citizens, leave our questions at the door if they have anything to do with politics, who got rich on the wars, or what a soldier’s motivations might have been.
My suspicion is that the motivations of many a soldier were pure and noble but that the motivations of those in power were far from either pure or noble. I have worked around military people for many years, and they are some of the most sincere, hardworking people I know. But I have observed that the military in general is not big on either questioning authority or deep self-reflection. There are exceptions of course, but the military’s existence kind of depends on enthusiastic acceptance of a given narrative and acting on it.
There are advantages to this approach to life. It is efficient. Things get done. Bombs get dropped, countries get invaded, statues get toppled, people get killed. You get to check a box and move on to the next objective on the list. Perhaps there is a little reflection about how the mission could have been done quicker and better, but no troubling about whether the mission should have been done at all. Too late for that.
Well, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And without a military attitude, it would not have been built at all. At some point you just have to say, “Rome was built.” What is, is and what was, was. Soldiers are dead at a young age. On Memorial Day, personal motivations and the morality of war are beside the point. Suspend your disbelief — or if you cannot, you can surely believe this: they went to war and some of them came back dead. Honor and remember. And if you like, take a moment to read the thoughts of a World War I soldier named John McCrae, who lived the thing we honor and remember. McCrae died of pneumonia near the end of the war.
In Flanders Fields
‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The Torch: be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields’.