Today’s Memorial Day essay is, with only a few minor changes, a repeat of an earlier post that I first published on "Map and Counters" in 2009. I keep bringing it back each year because it conveys, at least insofar as my meager gifts allow, the essence of my thinking on the topic of Memorial Day; moreover, although I do occassionally revisit this topic, I have thus far found nothing in its core message that I would change. At the time I first wrote this essay, I had only recently experienced something of a personal epiphany: one that had imbued me with a powerful urge to honor those who, for one reason or another, are all too often passed over by their countrymen in favor either of better-known military leaders or more famous heroes. Nothing that has happened since I first wrote this post has done anything to change my mind. On the contrary, as time has gone by, I have become more and more convinced that Memorial Day shouldn’t mainly be about celebrating those who are or were famous, whether gallant heroes or successful generals — their memories will almost always be preserved somewhere, if only in a fading copy of an old history book; instead, I believe that what this day should really be about is honoring the countless ordinary men and women who — although largely uncommemorated except by cemetery headstones — have served in our armed forces over the centuries and who, when duty required it, willingly relinquished the most precious thing that they possessed: their own lives. Thus, just as it has done in years past, this Memorial Day essay honors (however modestly) 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.
|Vietnam War Memorial Wall, Washington, D.C.|
In Memory of Marine LCpl. Clement Johnston, Jr., killed in action 4/28/66 in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Vietnam
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 take a moment to think about all of those men and women who serve overseas as a bulwark against the medieval fanatics that — in spite of the fact that their original leaders are now mainly dead or in captivity — still 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 fragile things, and they fade far too quickly. I was unexpectedly reminded of this sad truth, myself, only a few years ago.
During the first week of April a little over three years ago, my wife talked me into visiting the touring reproduction of the Vietnam War Memorial: The "Wall". She, herself, had already visited the real monument in Washington, DC, 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 the site of a former battlefield — I still get a lump in my throat when I see pictures of Arlington or of one 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 events that they commemorate, actually seem to say more about their well-intentioned builders than they do about those being memorialized. Nonetheless, because I still value my wife’s good opinion of me, I finally agreed to make the trip; so, on a sunny, windy Saturday morning in 2009, the two of us drove all the way out to Buckeye, Arizona, to pay a visit to the touring facsimile of the “Wall”.
|U.S. WWII Cemetery, Normandy, France.|
|Arlington National Cemetery|
|U.S. WWII Cemetery, Lorraine, Normandy, France.|
|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 rebuke, and it had suddenly become strangely important to me that I at least make a serious effort to do this. Thus, melancholy though my and my helpers' task may, looking back, now appear to an outsider, it nonetheless imbued my spur-of-the-moment project and its outcome with an emotional intensity that I have rarely felt before or since. And, more importantly, my and the "Wall" volunteers' labors were not completely fruitless.
The two young marines memorialized at the start of this essay — one forever 18 and the other 22, who died so many years ago in Vietnam — may or may not be the men I knew when I was a young soldier, I will never be truly sure. But what I do know is that even if they are not, they still deserve to be honored on Memorial Day by someone, and I am proud for that someone to be me. It took a long time for me, personally, but having finally visited the “Wall,” I also now know something else: I realize, at last, that if we who served with those whose names are inscribed on that gleaming black marble do not make the conscious (and sometimes painful) effort to remember those who fell in Vietnam so long ago, then who among us 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!