Between the Lines: Memorial Day triggers mixed feelings

My friend John once told the story of the worst thing that ever happened to him.
It was in World War II. He and 30 other young guys were in a boat off the coast of Norway, part of the Allies’ effort to retake the country from the Germans. Norway was bitterly contested territory, a tough place to be.
John’s boat landed in a cove. He and two of his buddies were ordered to go inland and reconnoiter the countryside. They armed themselves as heavily as they could and set off on foot to see what they could find.
They went deep inland and encountered no resistance. Hours later, they returned to where the boat had landed.
There they saw a heartbreaking scene.
In their absence, the Germans had come. All of the men who had remained on the boat — many of them good friends, all of them comrades in arms — every single one of them had either been killed or captured by the Germans.
When I say that John once told this story, I mean that literally. Once is all he could handle.
At this point in his account — his friends missing or lying dead on the beach and in the boat — he could go no further. He broke down, his body heaving with tears and a grief that, though decades-old, was as fresh as when he was a young and terrified soldier in Norway who lost all his buddies.
He could tell no more of the story. To this day we don’t know what happened after that. How he survived. How he ever escaped the Germans. How he got through the war and lived to come back home and establish a successful career and raise a family.
For John’s wife the experience of World War II was less traumatic, but she still bears the grief of losing a beloved brother on the battlefields of France. She’s been back several times over the years to kneel at his grave in one of the cemeteries filled with American dead, to lay flowers there and tell her long-gone brother she still loves him.
It’s stories like these that make me glad we take the time each year to honor our military heroes.
For someone of the generation that followed John and his wife, the courage and fortitude and determination it took to win World War II are just barely imaginable. It was a different world then, much more black-and-white than today’s world. Theirs was a generation raised to do the dutiful and right and patriotic thing, in an era when what was right and patriotic was clear and unarguable.
Since World War II, however, those we honor on Memorial Day have fought and died in wars that were less popular and less clearly “right.” We tend to forget that Korea was not a popular conflict. My peers and I grew up in the thick of the Vietnam War, and some of us are still arguing with each other about it.
I grew up just a few miles from the small western New York town of Waterloo, which is credited with being the birthplace of Memorial Day. The event there started in May of 1866 as a way to honor the North’s Civil War dead.
First New York state and then all the other Northern states have long celebrated what used to be known as Decoration Day, at the end of May.
It’s a sign of how old wars still divide us that the states of the Confederacy, right up until about World War II, had their own, separate days to honor Confederate dead. Some of those states still do.
There will be no shortage of wars for us to argue about until the day we die. The people who run the country are always coming up with new ones, it seems.
President Obama, for example, came to office as a harsh critic of the war in Iraq. But he now oversees the military occupation of that country, which still involves more than 50,000 American soldiers and countless taxpayer dollars. The U.S. is also fighting a war in Afghanistan that has gone on nearly twice as long as World War II, and Obama has launched another nascent conflict in Libya.
Sadly, most of those who argued so forcefully against President Bush’s military initiatives, especially in Iraq, seem to think those wars are OK now that they are being pursued by a Democratic president instead of a Republican one. It makes one wonder if “peace” is really about partisanship.
An old peacenik like me inevitably approaches the coming of each Memorial Day with a bit of ambivalence. I have no argument with the idea of honoring those who have served. Like nearly all liberals, I love my country passionately.
Yet every year I find myself lamenting the very necessity of a holiday like Memorial Day.
A three-day break is always welcome, of course. It’s been a long time since Presidents’ Day. And with Memorial Day comes the glorious arrival of lilacs.
The parades that flow through the streets of Addison County towns are always fun. And Memorial Day is a holiday when it’s time to get out on the water somewhere, to put something on the grill and crack open a couple beers.
Our military heroes died in the hope of preserving this way of life and bringing us a better world.
But I wish we had a day, too, where we honored all the heroes who have worked for a better world in nonviolent ways. And I wish Memorial Day was more about somber remembrance, the sadness that comes with every war and haunts us still.
From Korean vets rotting in V.A. hospitals to wheelchaired Vietnam vets begging for change on street corners, from legless Afghan war survivors to families who lost sons and daughters in an insane search for weapons of mass destruction — the wounds of the wars this nation has fought are deeply felt, still.
In some ways we are all kneeling at our brother’s grave, in a cemetery in France where there is row upon row of white headstones. In some ways, we are all still on that beach in Norway.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived at E-mail him at [email protected].

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