Memorial Day is always a pensive time for me on so many levels. This year I felt the spirit of all of the souls who lost their lives in the service of our country more than ever. I also thought of those who made it through wars but whose lives were forever changed by memories of battles that they fought. War is a terrible thing and we have generally tried very hard to use it as a last resort. Nonetheless even now we have soldiers serving in war torn countries knowing that they may lose their lives at any moment. Such courage is difficult to understand but many who served in the military have told me that in the heat of a battle the focus becomes the preservation of the members of the corps. It is all about attempting to insure that everyone survives and leaves the battlefield alive. That profound human instinct to protect takes over to create magnificent acts of heroism.
I am a pacifist by nature but I understand that there are indeed times that require humans to defend themselves, their families, their country. If I had my way diplomacy would be rational and powerful enough to end war forever but I know that somehow people have a very difficult time setting aside their differences in a spirit of compromise. Throughout history we have found ourselves engaged in combat again and again and our young men have been called upon to fight. On Memorial Day we remember those whose lives were cut short and while we honor them, we also silently wonder why they had to much such a profound sacrifice for the rest of us.
I spent time this past weekend watching some movies about the brave men who have fought for our cause. First I viewed Glory, one of my all time favorite films. I cannot watch it without ultimately sobbing. It encapsulates the mixed emotions that surround the history of our country including perhaps the worst political mistake we ever made in allowing slavery to coexist with the ideals of democracy. While the nation was growing and prospering the politics of slavery that divided the people became more and more inflamed ultimately pitting state against state, region against region, brother against brother.
My great grandfather who was living in Kentucky chose to fight for the union forces. He spent four years first as a foot soldier and then a calvary man. The war placed a toll on his health. Somehow he was never as robust as he had once been and surely the horrors that he witnessed must have haunted him. His unit was tasked with collecting the bodies of the dead and wounded soldiers after the battle of Shiloh. It had to have been a gruesome sight that haunted him even as he settled into a somewhat normal existence had began a family. I think of them often and feel both pride for his service and regret that he had to endure such a thing.
I also watched We Were Soldiers another film that brings out emotions from my youth. It takes place during the Vietnam War in the year when I was a senior in high school. Seeing the brutality of the battle it depicts only reinforces the sorrow that I felt whenever I learned of the death of someone who had been a classmate or a friend. While many of them had enlisted, others were drafted into service. The country was conflicted about the necessity of our involvement in what was essentially a civil war in a place so far away from home. While it was touted as a stand against communism it became clear over time that somehow we were outsiders attempting to protect Vietnam from a war that the Viet Cong was determined to win no matter how long it took.
The wall in Washington D.C. lists the names of all of the almost sixty thousand souls that we lost in that effort. I am haunted by the humanity of it each time I visit and run my fingers over the names of those that I knew. They were brave individuals who believed that theirs was a just cause but to this very day I wonder if losing them might have been prevented if we had known beforehand how the conflict would ultimately end. How different would their lives and the lives of those who loved them be if they had never gone to Vietnam?
History, and particularly military history, is riddled with questions. It is easier to see the might have beens in retrospect. An armchair general can consider what went wrong with great clarity but the reality is that we will never really know what would have happened if we had chosen different routes. Wars are caused when humans cannot agree on how the world should be. Our young people go out to fight the battles for the philosophies of politicians and sometimes tragically lose their lives. I consider how wonderful it would be if we never had to engage our youth in such horrors ever again while realistically understanding that such an ideal will never come to pass.
This Memorial Day was haunted by the growing divide amongst us regarding Covid-19, a virus that has taken close to one hundred thousand souls in a span of only three months. While the disease stalks the world in search of bodies to invade we argue with one another and point fingers at those who are attempting to lead us. We choose sides and sometimes even viciously attack those whose beliefs differ from our own while our courageous essential workers have been drafted into the role of keeping us safe. It is a new kind of battle with so much uncertainty that none of us can truly know exactly how to react.
I cannot understand why we humans choose to argue with one another so often and why we so seldom choose to find a road that eschews hostility. Perhaps it is in our natures, something that we have never been able to totally control. We have gone to war with one another in an endless loop of death and destruction that rears its head more often than we wish and yet we still work at odds with one another and follow those who actually encourage us to do so. We repeat the mistakes and the sins of our ancestors because in the end we are not so different from them. Memorial Day should always remind us of the cost of disagreements that become so entrenched that we no longer communicate. The spirits of all of the lost humanity should spur us to find ways of loving instead of fighting.