Posts Tagged ‘Memorial Day’

In the closing scene from Saving Private Ryan the aged Ryan, surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren, visits the military grave of the one who came to save him but lost his own life in doing so. He stands in front of the stone and thanks him again, asking himself the hard question: Did I live a life worthy of that sacrifice?

It is a hard question for all of us. And it gets to the heart of what we do on Memorial Day.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with having a patriotic festival and re-energizing the national tribe. Healthy national pride is a good thing. But that cannot be a substitute for the more substantial question, the kind of question such as Ryan asked in front of that stone. It means asking harder questions beyond public rhetoric.

For example, how are we actually caring for veterans – not in the abstract, not in public displays, but in actual services provided to them? Are we willing to fill the available job with a veteran? Are they welcomed back into our communities? Does the VA deliver services when needed in a timely way?

One of the heartening outcomes of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been the identification of vast fraud committed by lenders against veterans. As a result millions of dollars have been returned by those abusing institutions. That fraud would never have been identified and prosecuted were it not for an agency charged to do only that. Citizens – in this case veteran citizens – were actively protected. As of late the standards for those lenders, the regulations, are being shelved and scaled back. The winners are predatory lenders. The losers are mortgage borrowers, just like those veterans.

Do I live a life worthy of that sacrifice? Is it a moral life? Does it overturn injustice? Do I advocate for those who have no voice?

More to the point, do I live a life that safeguards the very particular freedoms for which many died? That means honoring the Constitution and the rule of law. And the Constitution includes 33 Amendments added since 1789. Do I safeguard those Amendments?

I remember standing by a combat veteran at an event in which someone protested by not participating in some patriotic ritual. And he said, “I fought for the freedom of that guy to have free speech. I may agree or disagree with him but that is beside the point. I fought for our democracy and the principles of our Constitution. I fought for that guy.”

On this Memorial Day we will have patriotic social ritual. There may be some speeches. But the question of Private Ryan is still the one that matters. Am I living a life that will honor the sacrifice? Am I defending the democracy that gave rise to it? Democracies are fragile things. They take decades, even centuries to build but can be jeopardized in a relatively short span of time. Ours is resilient. But it is not unbreakable.

How will I honor the sacrifices?

Let us begin by reviewing our evolving Constitution and its Amendments.


In an era in which war has been glorified, glamorized, popularized, sensationalized and romanticized, anything that even resembles its reality has often been lost – so say those who actually know the untethered beast, the monster that rampages through the dust of civilizations. As of late a slender sheaf of authors have written with true personal knowledge of its reality. And of those some write with large and informed views. One of those is Karl Marlantes.

Marlantes is a graduate of Yale and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He served as a Marine Lieutenant in Vietnam, airdropped into the highlands of Vietnam in 1968 at the age of twenty-three, in charge of a platoon of forty Marines. He killed the enemy. He watched his men die. And he and some came home to live with the invisible wounds of it for decades.

What it is like to go to War is personal, honest, philosophical and moral to its core. Anyone who dares to reflect deeply on Mars the god of war does well to read it. It is not easy, but it is true. And I leave you with one quote to ponder on this Memorial Day:

“The more aware we are of war’s costs, not just in death and dollars, but also in shattered minds, souls, and families, the less likely we will be to waste our most precious asset and our best weapon: our young…The substitute for war is not peace; peace is a seldom-achieved political state of being. The substitutes are spirituality, love, art, and creativity…As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them…Warriors must always know the people they are protecting and why. They must undertake the personal responsibility for deciding when to kill and for what higher cause. This implies a commitment to a cause beyond self-interests, or even national interest alone.” (256)

It is on Memorial Day that we so often witness a cultural nod to the official day; the parades, flag waving and speeches. But in reality, for a public in which a very slender percentage actually know anything about war and its human costs, it is a day off, a barbeque, a long weekend. When you talk to combat veterans who actually witnessed and participated in the horrors war they are much more circumspect about such observances. Please don’t find one and quip, “Thanks for your service.” For many that is an uninformed comment that demonstrates a total lack of understanding.

Soldier MarlantesAfter Karl Marlantes graduated from Yale in 1968 and before going to on to graduate work at Oxford, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam. As a result of his action as a lieutenant he became highly decorated. After return to civilian life Marlantes not only pursued a distinguished career. He also continued to exorcise the demons of his wartime experience. In hisĀ  2011 memoir, What it is Like to go to War, he describes, as much as anyone can, theindex real experience of the warrior and war. Like many who have served in similar ways, including those who have recently returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marlantes attempts to give voice to the alienation, sense of betrayal, and guilt which accompanied him. Writing this memoir was one of the many ways ways he sought to heal the inner wounds of war. And the following excerpt is taken from his memoir:

Karl Marlantes“Returning veterans don’t need ticker-tape parades or yellow ribbons stretching clear across Texas. Cheering is inappropriate and immature. Combat veterans, more than anyone else, know how much pain and evil have been wrought. To cheer them for what they’ve just done would be like cheering the surgeon when he amputates a leg to save someone’s life. It’s childish, and it’s demeaning to those who have fallen on both sides. A quiet grateful handshake is what you give the surgeon, while you mourn the lost leg.There should be parades, but they should be solemn processionals, rifles upside down, symbol of the sword sheathed once again. They should be conducted with all the dignity of a military funeral, mourning for those lost on both sides, giving thanks for those returned. ..

Veterans just need to be received back into their community, reintegrated with those they love, and thanked by the people who sent them…

There is also a deeper side to coming home. The returning warrior needs to heal more than his mind and body. He needs to heal his soul.”

On Memorial Day we remember the deaths and sacrifices of those who served in harm’s way regardless of the motive or relative virtue of the particular war. Just recently I observed the reaction of a vet who served in an unpopular war with questionable purposes. He still suffers from agent orange. And he has enough distance now to be able to separate the lack of virtue in that war from the grief he carries for fallen comrades.

The thing that made him flinch, that caused him to ever so slightly shake his head, was a word bandied about in a cavalier way: freedom.

What my friend knows but our society does not clearly enough is that the word freedom has been used as a blank check. When applied to every American military operation it legitimates every action, every war without question. “Protecting our freedom.” The truth, however, is that not all military operations defend our country from direct threat or even prevent future harm. Some wars are elective. Some are based on false assumptions and erroneous information. Some are waged because some, not all, believe they are important. Some are waged for mixed economic motives.

To say that such wars are protecting our freedom is the greatest stretch. In those cases one could only use that word, freedom, to refer to the freedom to have anything we want. In a situation like that it is very difficult to say that our service people died for the sake of freedom. They died because they were following orders but not necessarily because freedom was at stake.

Every death is a noble one when given to a noble cause. When the cause is revealed as lacking virtue then the death becomes more exclusively tragic.

The sacrifices of those who intended to do the best for a country they hoped would make good decisions are priceless and worthy of our thanks regardless. But as my vet friend reminded me the word freedom remains perhaps the most overused and misused one in the English language. Some died more directly for the sake of that word and some less so. And the superlative way we can honor those who serve is to make sure that we only call on their service for the right, virtuous and noble cause, for nothing less than that.