While it might seem off-topic when considering my typical work, this piece reflects some of the struggles I have in living in the world of Modern Mind.
You can hear a shorter version of this in the Perspectives section of KQED radio’s website. This piece aired on KQED 88.5 FM in San Francisco on Sunday, May 25th and Monday, May 26th.
I do not know what to make of Memorial Day.
I did not go to a Memorial Day service last year, which I have done for a number of years. I did not go because of work, of needing to prepare a meal for my friends and neighbors . . . and also because something didn’t happen during those services that needed to happen, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Because I do not know what to make of Memorial Day.
I do not know what to make of a day where the news about the holiday pays so much attention to store sales, miles driven, and prices that consumers—not citizens, but consumers—will face as they fill up their cars and trucks on the way out of town.
I do not know what to make of a day that so many Americans view as a day for taking time off for vacations and barbecues, rather than a day for taking time out . . . to remember.
It is supposed to be a day when we remember, remember those who have served in the military who have died serving our country, remember and honor especially those who have died in combat, defending our freedom.
This is all the more confusing because some of those who have died in this past decade fought in a war that I protested, protested because I did not believe we were being told the entire truth of the reasons for going to war. It doesn’t make me feel better that it turns out that I wasn’t wrong to protest, that indeed not only the lives of human beings were sacrificed in this struggle.
It is confusing because I have a sneaking suspicion that this war, that too many wars, are fought too much to prosecute an ideology, and not enough to defend freedom.
It is all the more confusing, because I protested starting a war that my nephew Mike—only months out of high school, our family’s flesh and blood—would fight as an infantryman, as a member of a group that would bear the brunt of the death, both inflicted and suffered, caused by this war. At the time, I was told that protesting was not supporting our troops, which infuriated me, since that felt so patently false and twisted. It was the furthest thing from my mind and my heart. It terrified me that Mike was being sent in harm’s way, and angered me that he and his buddies were being sent for reasons that were less than honorable.
On November 8, 2004, Mike entered the town of Fallujah in Iraq with his battalion.
That week my calendar was filled with completing work tasks, dealing with the hassle of jury duty (a hassle that Mike was sworn to protect), calling Clair Tappan lodge to make ski vacation reservations—I was oblivious to what was happening to Mike and his battalion eleven time zones away.
Mike was fighting in a town that neither of us had ever heard of nor cared about before. Mike was engaged in combat. What a word, “engaged.” Mike and his squad were engaged in what is euphemistically called “clearing houses” and “securing the city.” With each house, his fireteam of four marines would trade off being “point”—that is, the soldier who would kick in a door, and be the first to give and take bullets with those who might be hiding inside. As I was going about my week, Mike was in in the middle of death and terror, both inflicted and suffered.
• • •
Memorial Day is supposed to be a day when we remember, remember those who have served in the military who have died, remember and honor especially those who have died in combat. Even in a war I protested. Perhaps especially in a war I protested.
Here are some names of those who died in that war. They fought next to Mike before they themselves were killed.
Kirk. Brad. Todd. Dave. Gentian. Nick.
[Last names excluded to protect the privacy of the families.]
I do not know what to make of names that, of course, hold so little meaning for me; I feel a mixture of sadness and guilt stirred in with my confusion. Mike forged a strange bond with these young boys—young men—who died in Iraq (whom I will never know, can never know), and with those who came back, a bond created when soldiers face death together, a bond that I will never know, will never have to know, certainly will never fully understand. It is only this bond with Mike that makes these names meaningful to me.
I do not know what Memorial Day would look like to me, to my family, had Mike’s name been among those names, had he himself been killed. When I think about it, which isn’t very often, probably not often enough, I get a shuddering, wrenching feeling. Life would be horribly, horribly different for our family. I’m glad that we will never have to know this hell.
But I do sometimes think about what it’s like for the families of the young men killed, and the hell those families must have suffered through and still suffer through.
I sometimes think about what it’s like for returning veterans who fought in this war, to have a country and a holiday where so many are like me, oblivious to what happened, what is happening even now, on the other side of the planet—to have a country and a day where so many fail to remember them. Oblivious; I once actually said, “Happy Memorial Day,” to Mike, as if it were a day to be happy about.
But I didn’t know what else to say.
• • •
Awhile after Mike returned from Iraq, bringing back toughness, tattoos, and nightmares, he engaged in studies at Berkeley, studying social work so he could help returning vets as he himself was helped after he returned from war. When he graduated, he was asked to give the commencement address for his class. In it, he said, “It is crucial not to blame the warrior for the war, and do not confuse policy made in Washington with the bravery of those who serve overseas.”
I try to take his words to heart. Yet I’m still confused. Because in the middle of criticizing policy and protesting war, I’m not sure how best to honor these warriors and their bravery that Mike talks of. But at least I sometimes try to remember.
May these young men rest in peace. I will remember them as best I can.