I received several emails over the weekend, from both the left and the right, suggesting (or goading) that I write a Memorial Day tribute of my own. And I would have… that is, if I had anything particularly relevant to say on the subject.
I’ve never served in the military, nor have any of my closest friends, nor anybody in my immediate family. Not my siblings nor my parents nor my grandparents nor my first or second cousins. I had a great uncle who served as an MP during World War II, guarding German prisoners of war, I believe stateside, but to my knowledge that’s about as close to combat as anyone on either side of my family has ever come. In fact, it seems clear that some of my ancestors emigrated to the U.S. specifically to avoid service in the Czar’s army.
As a child of the sixties, growing up watching the Vietnam War on TV, I vowed never to enlist, even if drafted. I would not give my life to fight what I believed to be an immoral war… and besides, I always thought I’d make such a crappy soldier that my risk of court martial for insubordination would far outweigh any chance that I’d ever do time for draft evasion. I was never a pacifist per se, but I’ve never believed in such a thing as a “just” war. Necessary perhaps, but never just.
Over the course of my 45 years I have come to know people who have served, some who even served in combat, but I’ve never known anybody who has sacrificed his life in service to our nation, nor am I aware of any close friend or relative to have lost a close friend or relative as such. The tragedy of war — Iraq, Vietnam or any other — has never directly touched my life.
I have both empathy and sympathy for those who have not been so fortunate, but my personal experience of Iraq is little different than that of Vietnam: it is something I watch on TV.
So who am I to memorialize our war dead when I know nothing of what they or their families endured? How can I adequately memorialize something for which I have no personal memory?
I am not a soldier. I do not come from a military family, nor from a cultural milieu were military service is common or even encouraged. Like President Bush and Vice-President Cheney and so many of the other hawks who foolishly led us into Iraq, I would have done almost anything to avoid military service. (The difference is, I admit it.) In this context, what words of commemoration could I have given, however heartfelt, that wouldn’t have come off as hollow?
Some of the fallen we honor each Memorial Day gave their lives willingly, others not. Some died defending freedom, others fell defending the folly or pride of their leaders. Some causes are more noble, some deaths more honorable… that is the nature of war, a nature reflected in the historical roots of Memorial Day itself, which arose after the Civil War to honor the dead of both those who defended the Union, and those who fought to preserve a Southern economy based on slavery.
While I may not know war firsthand, I know my history. I know that for every Yorktown there is a Gallipoli… for every Afghanistan there is an Iraq. The same armies that risked their lives to liberate the Nazi death camps, incinerated the city of Dresden and tens of thousands of innocent civilians—women, children, babies—with it.
I’m not a politician, and so I do not have to pin a flag to my lapel, place my hand over my heart and pretend that patriotism always trumps history or common sense. And so on Memorial Day I honored our war dead in the best way that I knew how: by keeping silent. It is simply not in me to ignore my own internal dissonance, but it would have been disrespectful to voice it on a day that means so much to families who have sacrificed so much for our nation, whatever the cause… and so much more than I myself have ever been asked to give.