Today’s post is, with only a few minor changes, a reprint of an earlier essay that I first published on this blog in 2009. This year, my original intention was to commemorate Memorial Day, 2010, with an essay celebrating the extraordinary heroism of two different Medal of Honor recipients: Marine Gunnery Sergeant “Manila” John Basilone and Army Colonel Lewis L. “Bayonet” Millett. However, the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that Memorial Day really isn’t about celebrating our famous heroes; instead, it is about honoring the countless ordinary men and women who have served in our armed forces over the centuries and who, when duty required it, gave up the most valuable thing that they possessed: their lives. Thus, like last year, this Memorial Day essay honors two U.S. Marines who fell as a result of enemy action a long time ago in Vietnam; just as importantly, however, it is also a salute to all of those who, through the ages, have made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country: from the first violent birth pangs of the new American Republic, to the faraway battlefields of the present day. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.
In Memory of Marine LCpl. Clement Johnston, Jr., killed in action 4/28/66 in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Vietnam
The Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, D.C.
When we honor the memory of those who have, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, already “given the last full measure of their devotion,” let us also honor all those who, like my young Marine nephew, currently fight in a long and arduous war against a fanatical enemy whose leaders, even now, plot attacks against the American homeland from half a world away.
A Few Additional Thoughts on This, the First “Summer” Holiday of the Year
Today is “Memorial” Day. It is supposed to be a day of remembrance. And I like to think that there was a time, not that long ago, when most ordinary Americans understood and honored this day and its original purpose. Now, for many, if not the majority of my fellow citizens, I fear that Memorial Day has become little more than an excuse for a three-day holiday weekend, or a backyard barbeque, or even for a “blow-out” electronics sale. I hate to admit it, but I understand how this change could happen: memories are tricky things, and they fade far too quickly. I was reminded of this sad truth, myself, only a year ago.
U.S. WW II Cemetery, Normandy, France.
During the first week of April of last year, my wife talked me into visiting the touring reproduction of the Vietnam War Memorial: The Wall. She had already visited the real monument in Washington, but she knew that— despite the fact that I had served two and a half years in Vietnam — I had not; so she thought that it might be nice for us to finally visit the touring “Wall” display together. I agreed to make the trip, but under protest: I have to admit that I have always had mixed feelings about “war” memorials. Unlike a military cemetery or a former battlefield — I still get a lump in my throat when I see pictures of Arlington or of the American Cemeteries at Normandy or Lorraine, in France — most of these types of monuments have always struck me as being more like “guilty” afterthoughts than anything else. Too often the statues or marble structures that are erected, usually long after the fact, actually seem to say more about their well-intentioned builders than they do about those being memorialized. Nonetheless, I finally agreed to make the trip; so on a sunny, windy Saturday morning in 2009, my wife and I drove all the way out to Buckeye, Arizona, to visit the touring reproduction of the “Wall.”
U.S. WWII Cemetery, Garden of the Missing, Normandy, France.
I don’t know what I expected. But I can honestly say that no sudden, intense wave of emotion washed over me when I saw the monument. Nor do I think that my reaction would have been any different, had I been looking upon the real thing for the first time. I had served in Vietnam from February 1966 to August of 1968, so over four decades separated the “old man” from the young soldier that had gone to Southeast Asia so many years before. Also, I was never a grunt. I spent my time in Vietnam either helping to intercept and analyze, or, alternatively, to process intelligence gathered from enemy communications. In the course of my time in the Republic of Vietnam, my various jobs took me all over that war-ravaged country, but only rarely did I even have to carry my rifle or do any hard slogging. In short, all things considered, I had it pretty good. Of course, that was then and this is now. The first truly disconcerting fact that I discovered in Buckeye that day was that the young soldier of my dim past could almost have been someone else. But even that wasn’t the worst of it.
U.S. WWII Cemetery, Lorraine, Normandy, France.
As I walked along, I found myself scanning the “Wall.” Finally, when I reached the area of the monument that covered the period of my own service — for those who have not seen it, the names on the Wall are organized by date — I was surprised to discover that my mind had gone almost completely blank. Despite having spent some thirty months in Southeast Asia, I suddenly discovered that, somewhere during the march of the intervening years, I had forgotten many, if not most, of my old comrades’ names. In a lot of cases, if I could remember a name, I couldn’t match it with a face, or vice versa. This effect was particularly pronounced when it came to the soldiers and marines that I had served with in I Corps (Quang Tri Province) near the DMZ, during my first year in Vietnam. But it spilled over into other situations and locations, as well. The young men that I had had the odd beer with, or played poker with, or had met on R&R in Bangkok or Malaysia, or Taiwan had all, to varying degrees, disappeared into the mists of a half-remembered, distant past. These men were just regular Americans; not really so much friends, as the typical GIs that you bump into and get to know when you’re in a place long enough. This wasn’t to say that I had forgotten everyone, but only that I had forgotten far too many. And the most troubling thing of all was that I had somehow forgotten the names or the faces of those I knew who had been killed. Now, none of my closest friends had been killed or even wounded. Others that I knew, however, had not been so lucky, and as I walked along the mock-up of the “Wall,” I couldn’t help feeling that these others deserved better. And not just from me, but from the rest of their countrymen, as well. I couldn’t shake the guilty feeling that, somehow, I had let these young men down. And this idea brings me, finally, to the dedication at the beginning of this piece.
Gettysburg National Cemetery, Pennsylvania.
In the end, I and the wonderful, helpful people who volunteer with the monument tour all tried our best to identify at least a couple of individuals from a number of young men that I had known who had been killed in various operations from “Davy Crockett” to the “Tet” Offensive. Guilt is a powerful spur, and it had suddenly become important to me that I at least make the effort. The two young marines memorialized at the start of this essay — one forever 18 and the other 22, who died so long ago in Vietnam — may or may not be the men I remember, I will never be sure. But what I do know is that even if they are not, they deserve to be remembered on Memorial Day by someone, and I am proud for that someone to be me. And having finally visited the “Wall,” I also now know something else: I realize, at last, that if we who served with them do not make the effort to remember those who fell, then who will?
May you, my readers, and those you care about, all have an enjoyable and safe Memorial Day Holiday. And may those who wear our country’s uniform and who daily go into harm’s way, in dangerous, far-off places, also have a safe Memorial Day!