I live in the Pentagon’s bedroom; surrounded by some of the world’s smartest senior military officers both active duty and retired.
Every Memorial Day weekend, my neighbors and I arrange a cookout. My neighborhood is Rockwellian. We’ve thought of moving, we almost did once, to a bigger house, one with a garage, but the fact of the matter is that the intangibles of living here: our neighbors and our way of life, simply can’t be replicated.
I am not married to a military officer, but my blood is American, and I support these extremely brave men and women; officers and their spouses, who have valiantly pledged their lives for my and your freedom.
We are blessed; all of our neighbors have been spared the ultimate cost of military service, but they have all proudly served in the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. Right now, one of our officers is serving in North Korea. In a month, when he returns, we will send off another officer who will serve in Afghanistan for a year as his wife and three young children wait patiently and faithfully for his return. I’ve seen this happen, oh, six or so times now. Each of these officers leave and come back; every day a moment of wonder and a silent prayer offered up, perhaps in vain, for their protection and safe return.
I was reluctant to write about today; I wrote last November about my great uncle Buddy, who served in World War 2 and never made it home from Normandy. That post is poetic, if I do say so myself; but it’s not poetic because I wrote it, it’s poetic because of the fantastic artifacts my family managed to hold on to while Buddy trained for war. Click >here< if you are interested in that post.
As I was saying, I was reluctant about writing about Memorial Day because to me it’s gotten bastardized, corrupted, patronized, commercialized and shapeless. Memorial Day, to me, is like a National Day of Obligation (akin to the Holy Days of Obligation I grew up waiting to avoid) in which we sit, for just one moment or maybe sixty, in quiet repose to think about all the men and women who have died to protect our freedom.
There are those among us who are bitter about war (I raise my hand at times about it); I don’t understand war. On Mother’s Day, my youngest son, Thing 3 who is nine, asked me in front of his dad and two older brothers, “Mom, what do you wish for today? You have three wishes.” I said to him, “It will sound cheesy, like I’m in a beauty pageant, but I want simple things: health for you and your brothers and all your friends; happiness for you and your brothers and all your friends; and I want world peace everlasting. Not just for a day, but for all eternity.” A lump formed in my throat when I uttered those wishes. I meant them all.
So that means I don’t want war. That means that although I don’t want war, and I don’t understand war, I am aware of the fact that there is evil in the world. Sometimes I wonder if my beloved country is actively evil. I know to other people halfway around the world, we are considered evil. What makes us right? What makes them wrong? It all depends on what side of the barrel you’re on I suppose.
So that got me thinking, about war. Yesterday, when Thing 3 was watching Looney Tunes on the couch, there were the fantastic epic battles: Bugs v. Daffy in “Rabbit Seasoning” and Bugs v. The bull in “Bully for Bugs”; Elmer v. Bugs, Road Runner v. Coyote (for once I wish that bird would get his); Tweety v. Sylvester. Then there was one between Bugs and Yosemite Sam. The feud had escalated to a point from slingshot v. pellet gun to revolver v. shotgun to machine gun v. bazooka to canon v. Sherman tank v. atomic bomb and it dawned on me, again unfortunately, as it does every time I think about war, that this has been going on — the “who’s got bigger gun to hurt the other guy first” phenomenon for millennia and what it all boils down to for me anyhow is vulnerability.
I also saw a heartbreaking yet incredible example of that sort of horrifying detachment when I saw an episode of “Nature” when a zebra stallion encountered a foal that was birthed by his mare, but that it was not his foal, and this zebra went after this foal until it was dead. The stallion instinctually slaughtered the young foal because it was not his, and thus instinctually deemed to be inferior. So while I want to chalk it up to vulnerability; I want to believe that we are also part instinctual, that it’s fear (duh, but seriously deep fear that resides in the places we don’t like to talk about at cocktail parties) that foments war, and that fear is born of vulnerability.
But we are humans, we can reason. Right? Sometimes not so much. I catch myself wishing, perhaps foolishly, for people to a grip and not be so reactive, then maybe we’d have a chance at this everlasting peace thing. It takes awareness and humility and sacrifice, on all our parts. We all just want to live, right?
So I ask these senior officers what they think about it all and of course they want peace; they all have children, some have kids who are on active duty right now or whom have graduated from the service academies and will be serving soon. Others have grandchildren. A couple kids I know want to go into the service academies or enlist when they’re old enough. But these senior officers aren’t the ones making the calls; as high as they are in their rank, they still don’t have much of a say in terms of the massive global industrial war complex. We can’t solve these problems. After all, these men and women have children to feed and that happens to be closely tied to their military service. They’re no different from me and you.
So I bring it back down to the street-level view for them. “Given that this is Memorial Day, how do you feel about the way it’s commemorated?”
Lots of them grew up in little towns that dot the country. Many of those towns had parades honoring their fallen heroes. The whole town would shut down so everyone could go to the parade and watch the floats and banners and bands go by.
That doesn’t happen anymore. I suspect it does in some small towns, but when you live in the Pentagon’s bedroom, it’s not really possible. Just under 50,000 people live in my zip code alone.
So they think, these military officers. They don’t judge, but they don’t really answer. People have mouths to feed and people need work and if a half-off sale means they get use the saved money to feed their kids a little better for awhile, then who are we to say no? This is a free country after all; how do we take that right away from them? It’s complicated now. It didn’t used to be so complicated. Or maybe it’s always been complicated and I am finally catching on.
My street is the best street in the world. We work together and we talk to one another and we all truly enjoy each other’s company. I think we’re all in that place in life where we’re figuring it out — what’s important in life: the peace you can create in your own head. My husband and I made a cornhole game set; it was all the rage yesterday, once people loosened up a bit. He won against everyone he played. I couldn’t believe it. Even our current colonel lost to him. I thought that was madness. But I was still thinking about how we commemorate it; are we doing the intention of the holiday justice, just sitting here on our butts and playing as the sun sets?
Finally, one of them spoke up. “I like this. I like the way we’re commemorating it now: with a barbecue, and kids playing street soccer, and others playing hop scotch, and tag. And how we’re here grilling, with a beer in one hand and a spatula in the other, sharing our stories and being together. This is what we fight for; this way of life. I know of no greater country in the world than America.” He wasn’t just saying that. I instantly remembered a friend of my family’s who had served in WW2 saying about Memorial Day, “This is what I fought for; for you and me, thank God, to be able to do this: celebrate. This is who we are. If I died serving in the war, and you didn’t celebrate your freedom on Memorial Day, I’dve thought, ‘why’d I bother?'”
As someone who served in the U.S. Army Reserve in a medical unit during the Vietnam era, I think by and large, the US Military has been a force for good in the world. The wall between East and West Germany never would have came down except for the US Military. South Korea would be completely communist run by that nutcase who has starved much of the North Korean population to death.
As far as the celebration of Memorial Day I went to a concert at one of the presidential libraries to remember the men and woman that never came back from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Picnics and barbecues are fine but I’d like to see more people put flowers and flags on graves and go to Memorial Day concerts.
Your last sentence drives it home. Thank you, Wayne.
Poignant. Honest. Thank you for sharing. Believe it or not, I was thinking along similar lines yesterday, Molly. It is no ordinary day – and yes – it has become somewhat trivialized and commercialized. However, it’s the “ordinary” freedoms that we take for granted that we recognize and celebrate. As my kids ran through the park giggling, and my husband and I sat on a park bench holding hands, this is what’s it’s about – to never take for granted and never forget our precious freedom that cost the blood of so many. God bless you and your family, my friend.
you too. i wonder: if we paid more attention to the good things we have, maybe we will focus on those instead of being afraid they will be taken away. i have no clue. i just hate all the fighting. it’s so pointless. i do think our country has done more good than bad, and has saved other countries from horrors, but i feel like it’s all tactical.
i’m glad you had a wonderful memorial day. 🙂