What It Is, Exactly, That We’re Meant to Remember

In this age of bumper-sticker patriotism, when merely displaying the words “Support Our Troops” is taken by some to the sum total of what needs to be done to accomplish that task, Memorial Day deserves some reflection.

It is unpopular to question, in any way, recognition of serving and veteran military. And surely these people deserve recognition. But much of it comes at their expense, and for the wrong reasons. Just as the emblazoning of NYPD and FDNY on everything after 9/11 made me uncomfortable, so does a stranger’s admonition to support the troops — as if I’ve somehow fallen behind in my support quota. Besides, be it a baseball cap or a bumper sticker, someone is likely profiting off of that. After 9/11, when I would see yet another NYPD hat on some self-centered boob in line at a coffee place, then find myself unable to stop my mind from thinking about the crumbling buildings, I often had to go around a corner and sit down. It was all too much.

Similarly, hearing that I should thank any servicepeople I see, I began to strike up conversations with them in airports. I tried to include a cheery note of thanks in the talk. I noticed quite a few of them seemed to feel ill at ease about it. I stopped. Maybe they didn’t need another reminder that at home was a teary four-year-old who, just hours ago, didn’t understand.

But what a serving or veteran military person will remind you of, if pushed, is that their day is in November. Memorial Day, they will tell you, is for the dead.

Now, this is a technicality, and should not be taken as a scolding against honest efforts to be kind to those in the military. But the fact remains that the living need not be remembered. This last Monday in May is for those who gave their lives being, or helping, soldiers, sailors, flyers and defenders.

So what are we supposed to do? Certainly not cancel the barbecues and be somber, as some churlish people have suggested from time to time. I should think that someone who died in defense of this republic would want the beneficiaries of his or her sacrifice to relax, enjoy, and smile.

I think it’s simple, really, what Memorial Day requires of us. Remember. Remember that they were.

I will not burden you with detailed descriptions of death at war. I am not qualified, for one thing. But imagine: the fortunate die immediately, perhaps without time to even know. Others, not so lucky, may have seconds, minutes, even days to contemplate how they came to their impending end. Massive injury leads to bleeding, which is the actual cause of death. The disabled plane descends. The submarine sinks. As if the fact of the death isn’t enough, the soldier, sailor or pilot has time to think.

And despair, even if momentary, must be part of the experience. Perhaps it is not the end of life they mind so much. More likely it is this thought: will anyone remember me? When my family is gone, years hence, will even the idea of the unique being, me, dissipate into oblivion? Billions of people have lived and died; why should anyone remember me? Why?

I think — it is my heart’s guess — that that is all they want. Remembrance of some kind is all they ask in exchange for having said within themselves, at various times and in various stages, “I am willing to deny myself a future, if need be, to make sure other people have one. I could let someone else do it, but if too many people felt that way, maybe no one would do it. So I will risk this, even if I’m not certain that my particular death, should it happen, will buy the security I seek for my nation.”

So when the risk turns bad, comes true, as it has many times for nearly 240 years, all they need us to do is remember that they lived. That they were people. Individuals. A personality, a bundle of joys and flaws, one under every monument at Arlington, Normandy, Antietam, and a thousand other places marked and unmarked.

They were.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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