On this Memorial Day, we are going to be buffeted by stories of celebration and remembrance. Celebration of life – cookouts, travel, time with family – and remembrance of death – the soldiers who gave their lives, mostly young lives, that others might live free.
Every one of those people died for our country and our liberties. There is no way around it, and it holds true no matter where or how the death happened. From the Medal of Honor recipient who threw himself on a grenade to save his fellow troops to the unfortunate soldier who drowned by falling into a river in Iraq, every one of them was placing themselves at risk in defense of America, her allies, and her national interests. Death was death, and they did not come home from their fight.
It’s often considered bad form to divert attention away from their sacrifice, particularly on this day. I disagree. I think there are other things that need to be said. Appreciation and commiseration with those left behind, for example… and, directly related to that, a recognition and appreciation of what they fought for.
What they fought for is not necessarily the same as what they died for. One is motivation, one is result.
It is evident the fallen fought for different reasons. Some enlisted for the most mundane of hopes: the reward afforded by a G.I. Bill or training in a potential career. Many went to war out of fear of reprisal, having been selected to represent America in a draft and facing punishment if they refused the call. Many others felt a deep desire to serve their country, often instilled in them by generations of family history.
I know this because I encountered it, when I was in the Navy. When I was in, the draft was already a thing of the past, thankfully, and we had an all-volunteer service. I knew many of the first sort, who entered due to expected benefits. I had a slightly different motivation; I was trying to avoid organized crime figures who wanted to ask me questions about where a mob relocation witness might have gone (I expect that was not a common impetus to join the military… I’ve always got to be different.) But on board were many who were eager to serve.
They were people who had ample opportunities to do other things, but they joined the military, knowing they might be asked to go to war, because they had a deep belief in the fundamental greatness of our country. I always respected them a little bit more, because theirs was a drive built out of glimpsing the big picture… our country is great.
If you asked those sailors what was special about our nation, many would return with platitudes… “freedom”, “the stuff we can do”, “our history.” A rare few would respond with specifics of our government and our influence on the world. All of them, however, were setting the best example possible, and they would, hopefully, have time to learn the specifics of why our country truly excelled.
These, and those soldiers like them in the past, were among the noblest people our nation has ever produced, and many of them never returned from the battlefield.
Memorial Day is for honoring the fallen; Veteran’s day is for honoring the motivations of all who entered the service. I believe that the two are intermingled, and that on Memorial Day I should appreciate the things that the fallen never had the opportunity to fully experience… their families, which had a person-sized hole ripped in their lives which will never be filled; and their motivations, which should not be forgotten.
I’ll be donating to Children of Fallen Patriots today. For those concerned about such things – and I’d like to believe that should be everyone – they’re rated at over 95% on Charity Navigator. There are many other worthy charities, both local and national, and just because they don’t reach the $1M/year level required to be reviewed by Navigator doesn’t mean they aren’t great groups.
I’ll also be reaffirming my commitment to what the best among my shipmates fought for: the true greatness of our nation, which is, in my view, represented by the Constitutional law and history which elevated personal freedoms above the whims of a supreme leader. It becomes tiring, sometimes, to keep pounding away at such basic concepts as individual rights and the rule of law – particularly against headwinds born of fear, envy, greed and the desire for petty reprisal. Those concepts were purchased with the blood of our finest, however, and we should never abandon them.