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May 26, 2008
Why I’m Not a Fan of
Five years ago, on what we by law determine to be Memorial
Day, I started the afternoon by going to the movies. Those days, as
today, those moments when I was free to do things spontaneously were
rare enough that they stand out in memory, you see.
After I got home, and
before I set to what plans I had in mind (grilling meat while drinking
beer), I did a little surfing.
One of the final sites I
hit was the Washington Post, and I went to its page devoted to
servicemen killed in Iraq. I figured, well today is the day, and I may
as well show respect for it.
I did the Internet
version of flipping through the pages, pausing here and there to read
the bios for photos that seemed to grab my attention for one reason or
another and finally came to one that prompted me to stop altogether.
For me, it was a matter
of not just knowing someone, but having served with him during my four
years in the Navy. It was also at that moment that I realized that there
will always be faces familiar to you, and that you will always be able
to access them with just a simple reminder.
I bring this up because
I’m about to say something that is apt to be highly unpopular, and that
is that I’m not a fan of Memorial Day.
This isn’t because I have
Memorial Day baggage, nor because it is personally uncomfortable that,
on a day set aside for remembering Americans killed in conflict, I found
out that I served in uniform with one of them.
I am against it primarily
because of William March, born William Campbell.
Campbell served as a
Marine in World War I, and went on to win commendations from both his
government and that of France for heroism under fire. After the war, he
went on to write stories and novels. One of them was the novel,
was the story of a unit of American soldiers through the eyes of its
individual members. It started with the day that the unit was mustered,
through the end of the war concluding several years after, pointing out
that individual soldiers continue to fight wars long after the treaties
and armistices bring hostilities to a close.
One in particular that
stood out to me was the chapter dedicated to someone identified only as
The Unknown Soldier. He started as part of a wire party, and after being
discovered by the Germans was raked by machinegun fire and then caught
in barbed wire.
Snared in the wire, he
realized that he was going to die. He reflects on his life, including
those things that brought him to where he was, at that moment. Standing
out were speeches he attended in his childhood in which city elders
would regale the citizenry with speeches of those who died in war. They
were the glorious dead.
Realizing that his own
death would be used that way, he tore up his identity cards, preferring
to die anonymously rather than be the cause of future small boys to grow
up and believe that dying in war is a great and noble sacrifice.
It is an unfortunate
point, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It is good that we
remember our fallen in a way that is uncritical of their deaths, but is
not entirely uncritical. Public ceremonies and speeches crafted to
assuage anguish leave aside a critical point, which is that any death in
conflict is a poignant argument for us to end conflict and prevent it in
This is not something
that can be properly done en masse, but is best left to private
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