Monday, May 25, 2009

When Memorial Day became personal

One small gigantic sacrifice

Mine is not a military family. Very few of us are veterans. World War II broke out ten years after my paternal grandparents transplanted themselves and their children from the Azores to the United States. The two sons, my father and uncle, came of age during WW II but were spared military service because their agricultural work was deemed essential to the nation's security. Neither enlisted during the Korean War either.

The family was a lot bigger during the Vietnam era, with lots of draft-eligible boys. I was enrolled in college and deferred as 2-S. Two of my cousins signed up for the National Guard. One ended up in the army and another became a marine. The marine was eventually mustered out for health reasons, but the soldier became our only family member to be posted overseas. He served a hitch in Vietnam and came back a devil-may-care hellion; of course, he was that before he left, so we were merely disappointed that military discipline had not straightened him out. Otherwise, however, he came back largely intact.

The cousin who died in Iraq last year became our family's first military casualty. In a clan full of gung-ho support-our-troops types, it was a tragically eye-opening experience. These military adventures have consequences. We finally paid part of the price.

The event hardened my family's insistence that the invasion of Iraq was a good, noble, holy (Christian) cause. Now that we had sacrificed a family member on the altar of George W. Bush's adventurism, it was more important than ever before to argue that it was not some kind of horrible mistake or grotesque political calculation. USA! USA! USA!

I tried, and largely failed, to make the point that a soldier's honor lies in his devotion to duty, his dedicated discharge of his responsibilities, and his willingness to lay down his life in his country's service—whether or not he had been deployed for good reasons or ill. No one was satisfied with that argument. Heads began to explode when I asked whether soldiers who died during the relatively peaceful Clinton administration had died in shame and dishonor. That was irrelevant! (I can only imagine what the family's Clinton-haters would have made of my cousin's death had it occurred in Somalia in 1993.)

But I say it again: A soldier's honor is a personal trait. It has nothing to do with the political underpinnings of the mission on which he is dispatched. My cousin was sent to Iraq because the president at that time was eager to strut his stuff and take down the man that his father had spared. It was an absurd policy pursued by a feckless leader who is now one of the most despised ex-presidents in American history. Nevertheless, my cousin died with honor in the line of duty. That is what we need to remember on this Memorial Day, a holiday which is now more meaningful to my family.


ods15 said...

In Israel, Memorial Day is taken VERY seriously... I don't know how well known this is, but there is literally a horn that goes off in ALL of Israel (I can never find where those horns are..) for 2 minutes in the evening and morning of Memorial day, and everybody, including people driving or anything else, just stop everything and stand in silence.

I try my best, but I find it very very hard to see any admiration in dying for my country. In a bigger pictures, it almost feels more useless than a person that died by car accident or by cancer.

It feels weird for me to say that I respect the soldiers who died. I feel empathy for the families of course, but what would it mean that I respect the dead soldiers? I respect that, for my sake, you killed lives and sacrificed your own? Why would I respect such a sacrifice?

Like Hitchens says, "Jesus's sacrifice" for my sake is a tyrannical act...

I'm open to any insight on this...

christian magazine said...

I respect that, for my sake, you killed lives and sacrificed your own? Why would I respect such a sacrifice?

- i agree... i respect them because they are dead but not because of a war that i am against

Anonymous said...

Your cousin volunteered to be a hired killer for the government.

Are we supposed to cry over that now?

Christopher Hitchens Fan

Zeno said...

I get the point, Anonymous, that you're deliberately trying to be a jerk. Normally a remark like yours would be deemed evidence of success. However, "Christopher Hitchens Fan," you are making a callous remark about a casualty of a war that Hitchens enthusiastically supported. You have brilliantly combined "clueless" and "epic fail."