Memorial Day needs more war stories
Memorial Day should be a solemn day indeed.
No two memories will be the same on Memorial Day.
It is clearly a day set aside for memory, memory of war and of men and women (but, let’s face it, mostly men) who have killed and died in wars fought on behalf of the nation. A day ample with evidence of courage and sacrifice, true, but mostly with evidence of wars, mostly with evidence of original sin. A sad day.
I will remember a gigantic crucifix that my wife and I once saw at El Santuario Chimayo, a New Mexican shrine where we prayed at the beginning of our marriage. The crucifix had been hand-carved hundreds of miles away, in a remote Hispanic town in the southwest corner of the state, and borne on the back of its carver during a grueling barefoot pilgrimage along the western rim of the Rio Grande valley and into the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the adobe sanctuary where it is found. The carving, the cross, and the pilgrimage were all—so the inscription at the food of the cross explained—part of a prayer in thanksgiving “for my dear son’s safe return from Vietnam.”
I will remember how I embraced my older brother in the driveway, both of us weeping, on the day he left for military duty in Vietnam. He knew that I was willing to serve time in jail rather than follow his footsteps, I knew that he was willing to kill and die in a cause I thought unjust, and we both knew that we loved each other. So we embraced and wept. He came back safely, too.
I will remember a story my uncle once told me about the Second World War. It was his war story. How he had flown a fighter plane above the North Atlantic and spotted a German submarine. How he expertly destroyed it and how, hours later, shaken at the extent of the carnage, he visited the few survivors, stammered a sort of apology in half-remembered secondary-school German, and clumsily offered them American cigarettes. How one of the Germans, having learned that this was the flyer who dropped the bomb, spat in his face. He remembers the men he killed when he goes to Communion.
I will remember the innocent glee that flashed in the otherwise dull blue eyes of a Catholic teenager I once met in Belfast. In a sort of rapture, he described an event that had taken place the evening before, when the residents of his Falls Road block had so frightened off the teenagers in the British army’s foot patrols that “the Lads,” the urban guerrillas of the Provisional IRA, had been able to boost the block’s moral with an impromptu parade. “It was grand,” the boy told me. “Like a movie. They had their trench coats and berets and sunglasses and armalites. Jesus, it was lovely.”
Memorial Day could be most valuable for ordinary Americans. A day set aside to remember what war is and does could be useful for a people that has not been intimate with war. It is true that Americans have fought wars, even recently, but the wars have always been somewhat remote, and more chosen by our nation than inflicted upon it. It has been a long time since American families have been intimate with war the way Afghan, Nicaraguan, Palestinian, Cambodian, Iraqi, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Angolan, Ugandan, Yemeni, Salvadoran, and Syrian families have had to be.
American families have not recently had to flee in chaos before hostile armies; American sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands have not recently seen their mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives made prostitutes by occupying soldiers in exchange for food and medicine; American crops have not been burned to starve out local guerrillas and children alike. Americans have not had to feed their children to some fatuous superpower’s need to “keep the pressure” on an unfriendly regime.
Is that all there is to warfare? Just about, I’d say. To be sure, the splendors of the human spirit occasionally flash across the dark landscape of warfare—revealing that people as generous a species as they are rapacious—but those instances of courage, mercy, and selflessness should serve less as reminders of military glory than of redemptive possibility.
That soldiers are able to be kind to one another even in the landscape of hell should remind Christians, at least, that theirs is the least utopian of all religions. That soldiers could be brave while shedding their blood for cowards should remind Christians, at least, of one who, for love of cowards, did not flee death itself. That soldiers would yield up their lives for a people’s liberty should remind Christians, at least, of the love of which nothing at all is greater.
The horror appropriately remembered on Memorial Day might serve a spiritual need and help people recall some Christian beliefs. One must praise God even during war, when God seems indifferent. One must seek and meet Christ wherever one is, even in war. Even in war, while children are being murdered for political reasons, one must celebrate resurrection. One must finally remember that God has not sheltered his own son from a universe that includes the madness and evil of organized bloodshed.
Memorial Day should be a solemn day indeed.
This article was originally published in the May 1986 issue of U.S. Catholic.