I am the child of pacifists (my father was one of the first service members in the state to become a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and he and my mother were heavily active in the war’s protests). But, I am also part of a military family. The conflict between these two parts of my family loomed large in much of my young adulthood, and I landed pretty firmly in the pacifist camp. But, as I enter middle age, balancing the two parts of this whole has become a natural part of the complexity of life.
My grandfather was a young radioman in the U.S. Navy serving in the Pacific during World War II. Although it was nothing he ever talked about, it was always there: black and white photos of a young sailor faded to sepia, a newspaper account of narrow escape when his boat was bombed, and nightmares my aunt and uncles heard for decades.
My father in law served as a signalman in the Pacific during WWII, but unlike my grandpa, he told his son stories of his time on the ship.
But, despite this, today is not for them.
My husband is retiring soon from a two-decade career in the Navy. and I am immeasurably proud of his accomplishments and service. His job doesn’t put him on the front lines, but there are times when he is in danger and I get a glimpse of what some military families experience every day of a deployment.
But despite his service, today is not for him.
We live in military housing, and the reminders of deployment and war are everywhere. The parking spots at the store on base designated for families of the fallen are almost always full. In winter neighbors shovel the driveways of those whose spouses are deployed. Each morning I hear the national anthem and taps echo from base, and the children in our neighborhood have moved more times than most adults and often are largely raised by one parent while the other is away.
I am consistently amazed at the courage and strength the children, spouses and service members around me show as they deal with deployments, injury, and separation as if it is just another part of every day life, which is exactly what it is for military families.
Despite all of this, Memorial Day is not for us.
Today the day on which we honor those who have fallen in service of our country.
Military families have a fundamental appreciation of this fact that rises from the knowledge that someone you love deeply has chosen a career that puts them at risk, and has so far survived to come home to you. Whether on deployment or duty in the U.S., service is dangerous and this holiday serves as a reminder of those who have not come home.
The issues of war, our military’s size and actions, and our perspectives and treatment of military members are complicated ones, and though those discussions are important, for me Memorial Day is not the day for that.
We honor those who have died in the course of their service, despite the complicated nature of that service. Honoring them does not glorify war, but instead pays respect to men and women who were willing to put themselves in harms way for their country and died for that willingness.
I have no problem with people spending their day at sales and bbqs, My Grandpa would’ve spent his fishing or at a family picnic. I just hope we pause to remember the men and women who have died in service to their country.
Here are some of my best online sources to that end.
- Final Salute in the Rocky Mountain News includes an award winning photo series, Jim Comes Home
- The Washington Post Faces of the Fallen lists the U.S. service members who died during our current war. The Guardian’s Datablog does the same for British losses.
- CNN hosts an interactive online map of the soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (you may wonder about similar maps for civilians who’ve died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Information is harder to find, but there are maps at P.A.P. Blog, and Freewheel Burning.)
- The widow of a fallen soldier reflects on Memorial day at Spousebuzz.
- And of course, there are the poems of war. The two I think of most on this day are In Flanders Field by John McCrae, and Mark Twain’s The War Prayer.
- (Edit 5/22/2015) Filias Cuipo provided the following two songs by Eric Bogle, which capture the sacrifices we honor on Memorial day so well: “The Green Fields of France” and the haunting “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” You can find them on YouTube by following the links.
Lots of people on my FB feed are linking to Flanders Field today.
I’ve always been deeply ambivalent about that poem. On the one hand, it’s heartbreaking and lovely. On the other hand, there’s that final stanza which asks us — purporting to be in the voices of the dead — to continue to throw more soldiers into the war machine.
“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Given that there “never was a good war, nor a bad peace,” that sort of open insistence that the only right path lies in the continuance of war, I mean, jeez.
Which I know isn’t what you’re saying, Deet!
Just venting here.
I’d have said something like this if you hadn’t said it already.
I offer instead two songs by Eric Bogle:
“The Green Fields of France”
“The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”
(Just search for them on youtube.)
Being a pacifist doesn’t stop me from attending ANZAC day commemorations (our equivalent to Memorial Day.)
Thank you for introducing the songs, Filias. I had not heard of them. Here are links to the youtube pages with them:
“The Green Fields of France” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntt3wy-L8Ok&feature=kp)
“The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WG48Ftsr3OI)
Delegar, my first thought was I think I like your FB feed better than mine–mine was all eagle and flag photo memes and “thank a veteran” (which again, not in itself a bad thing, just not um, on a day set aside for the fallen).
But my second thought was that I see what you’re saying about Flanders Field. It is a pretty hard turn from the rest of the poem. I’ve always really focused on it as an elegy poem, and slid over that last stanza (as I suspect most people do when they include it at all). You make a good point that it’s more complicated than that. I do know McCrae threw the poem away, but I’ve never known why, so there’s no way of telling if the inconsistency made him do that or if it were something else.
Deek, yup, there were fishing days. But the Memorial Days I recall best (along with July 4) were those with big family picnics, Dad grilling more food than you could imagine anyone could eat, while blaring his vast collection of John Phillip Sousa records on something we called a “stereo”. But even with all the kids playing pickup ball in the field next door, and dogs running in and out of the house (some of which may not have been ours?) and him granting grill duty to the eldest kid so he could take his turn at bat (youngest kid got to run for him), he carried with him the dark knowledge that he was one of the lucky ones. He told me once that he honored the dead best by joying with life (as they joyed, when they could). They would have wanted that life he got to have, full of kids, dogs, baseball, summer days and hot dogs. Yeah, it may be trite – but rest assured, he (and we) pause to remember. It’s sobering, as it should be.