Every Memorial Day we pause to remember those who served and those who died in the wars that involved our country. Not all wars are included. For example, we make no mention of the so-called Indian Wars that did not end until 1924. Perhaps the latter are omitted because even the most nationalistic American tends to look back at them with shame.
We are right to remember those who served, whether as volunteers or draftees. Most, even those who could not understand why they were fighting, did so as a matter of duty to one’s country, and for many, it was more then that. They believed, or were able to convince themselves, that they were fighting to defend their country and the noble ideals for which it stood, even if they were among those groups of citizens who were denied the ideals for which they fought. Despite 200 plus years of history “We the people” remains a promise, a goal, a work in progress towards which we continue to strive.
We see evidence of the cost the veterans paid in the many monuments that are often neglected except on Memorial Day or July 4, and we see it in the physical scars that some veterans bear for the remainder of their lives. Often overlooked are the psychological scars that haunt many veterans with memories of war that cannot be exorcised by pills, liquor, or counseling. The pain suffered often extends to those loved ones who live with the physical and psychologically wounded, or with memories of loved ones who lost their lives in past and present wars.
During the fall of 1993 I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. It was very late during the night, and yet there were still people visiting the memorial. Some were very emotional. Perhaps they were looking for the name of a son, husband, or father who died while serving his country. The average age of those who served in the Vietnam War was 22. The youngest to die in combat was only 15. His name was Dan Bullock.
Dan Bullock was an African American who dreamed of one day becoming a pilot, police officer, or U.S. Marine. At age 14, he altered the date on his birth certificate to say he was born on December 21, 1949 rather than 1953, and joined the Marine Corps on September 18, 1968. He arrived in Vietnam on May 18,1969 and was killed in action just 20 days later on June 7.
It took a lot of courage for a young man–dare I say boy—of only 14 to volunteer for military service during wartime. He had to have been physically strong for his age and a strong spirited individual to have survived Marine boot camp. I cannot help but wonder what he might he have become had he not joined, or having joined, survived the war?
Memorial Day should be a day of mourning not a day of celebration. Cancel the parades, picnics, sporting events, and trips to the beach or the mountains. Cancel all the Memorial Day sales and close all the stores and even the restaurants. There is nothing to celebrate. We celebrate positive events—births, weddings, graduations, promotions, anniversaries, etc. etc. War is insane! War represents the worst in human nature. Although it has been with us since the beginning of human history, and will no doubt be with us to the end of history, any rational human being would agree that war has no victors.
A friend of mine posted on social media the official statistics on how many Americans died in our nation’s past wars. As one might expect, World War II had the highest number of deaths, 291,557. More then 7,000 have died in combat since 2001. But as I mentioned above, the number of deaths is only a small part of the cost a people pay for participating in wars.
Instead of listening to the national anthem and watching heroic war movies, listen instead to antiwar songs and read the memoirs and poetry of those who know the true meaning of war. I have been told, and I believe it true, that those who abhor war most are those who have experienced it.
I did not serve in the military during the Vietnam War. I tried very hard not to be a participant. As a historian by profession, I have studied the history of wars throughout the millennia of human history. What have I learned? I am not sure I can answer that question. I remain puzzled. I read once that Leon Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in attempt to understand why so many men would march halfway around the world to kill a bunch of people they did not know or have any reason to fight. Did he find an answer? I do not know. Tolstoy was a pacifist, but pacifism is not a rational answer, unless of course, everyone was to become pacifists. And how likely do you think that will occur, given the historical record of human folly?
So, I sit here on this Memorial Day with no desire to join the celebrations or go out shopping in order to show my patriotic support for the American economy. In the past two years I lost a very good friend and a brother-in-law, both of whom I would like to have known much better. Both of them served as officers in the Vietnam War. One was a Marine captain; the other a captain in the Army. Both lived the remainder of their lives with the after effects of the war. The one was wounded 5 times and carried pieces of shrapnel around in his body. The other could never forget those under his command who died, nor come to terms with the feeling that the United States abandoned the Montagnards whom they recruited to fight the Viet Cong.
One thing I do conclude, sitting here thinking about this Memorial Day, is that the line from the Roman poet Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” * often quoted to glorify war, is a lie, a very BIG LIE.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and live under the mercy.
*”It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”