Remembering, and Thinking Hard

My father’s grave, Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Minnesota, 2009. Thanks, Dad!

This post is largely for readers in the United States; friends in other countries may glean something about my gratitude for freedom and nation.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day.  For many, a welcome day off to spend with family and friends.  Some will pause to think about the meaning of the holiday.  To me, every day is a day to remember those who gave their lives so that we could be a free and sovereign nation, but I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about those who, as I say in my daily prayers, “gave some, much, or all of themselves.”  Two days ago, on Friday the 25th, I thought a lot about my dad, who served in the 145th Field Artillery Battalion in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.  He was one of the millions who gave much; he returned from service a far different person than before, and though the wounds to his body and soul healed during the late 1940s and ‘50s, they returned aggressively in the 1960s, and tormented him until he died in 2000.

We cannot ever repay those brave men and women, but we can and we must remember each day what they did for us.

Lily Burana, the wife of a soldier, wrote an outstanding essay in The New York Times on Saturday the 26th; here are her concluding words:

I believe that the civilian-military gap isn’t always born of indifference, but rather, at times, a sense of helplessness on the civilian side. What can I do? If you do nothing else, you can remember those who have given their lives for their country. Our country. Remembrance, which may seem a modest contribution in the moment, is a sacred act with long-term payoff — a singularly human gift that keeps on giving, year after war-fatigued year. I don’t need to remind you that America’s sons and daughters are still dying in combat. I don’t want to browbeat you into feeling guilty for not doing more. Instead, I want to tell you that as the wife of a veteran, it is tremendously meaningful to know that on this Memorial Day, civilians will be bearing witness and remembering in their own way — that those who are gone are not forgotten. I also want to say that as you remember them, we remember you.  Thank you.

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As important as remembering is, going forward all Americans must also think hard about the threats to us, and how we choose to address them.   In the last century, the Axis powers were a threat, and I’ve come to appreciate more clearly the threat that the Soviets posed to Western Europe during the Cold War.  But that nature of threat, and of “the enemy” has changed significantly in the past 50 years.  At the same time, as a nation we’ve unwisely removed a universal obligation to defend, by instituting a volunteer military.  Soliders are no longer a cross-section of society, and the burden falls disproportionately.  I vividly recall a conversation with two Swiss soldiers on the outskirts of Bern in May 2008:

Me: Do you speak English?

Soldier 1: A little

Soldier 2: Really well.  I was born in California.

Me: Is it okay if I take your picture?  I will understand if not.

[The soldiers converse in German; there’s some hesitation]

S2: Okay, but no building in the background.

Me: Of course.

Camera: Beep

Me: See, one of the reasons I wanted to take the picture is that I really admire the Swiss system of mandatory service.

S1 and S2 smile.

Me: In the U.S., the volunteer Army has meant that we’ve assigned defense to the poor and working class, and that’s wrong.  When my Dad served in World War II, he served with everyone.  I doubt we’d be in Iraq right now if we had universal service.

S2: Yeah, it would be different if the politicians’ kids had to fight.

Me: Gotta go.  Thanks and auf wiedersehen.

To drive the point home, do take a look at this article , also in The New York Times, about illustrators who draw patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.   Specialist Derek McConnell, 22, said, “It’s important for people to really see what we go through,” he said. “I have scars all over my body. I have a colostomy bag. I have one leg, and it’s only about 10 inches. This is what happens when you send young men off to war.”

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