War and Remembrance

Pulitzer Prize 1984
Anthony Suau, then with the Denver Post, won a Pulitzer for this Memorial weekend photo. I’ve borrowed it without permission.

It’s Memorial Day, and I should make at least some attempt to discuss something other than myself, but here is the problem: there is a large disconnect between my life and what Memorial Day stands for.

Because we — and by we, I pretty much mean “every person on the planet” — argue over everything these days, I gather there is great dispute about how Memorial Day came to be and who is responsible for bringing it to us here in the United States. My minute research project indicates that at least one university, Columbus State of Georgia, even has an entire center dedicated to researching this with more effort than I’m giving it.

Maybe emancipated slaves started it in 1985; maybe it was someone else in 1868; maybe no one but social scientists at a university know or care. Apparently, decorating the graves of fallen soldiers is an age-old tradition that the United States cannot lay claim to originating.

No matter, I guess. All we care about is it’s yet another in a string of holidays that we conveniently set for Mondays, in order for people (people not meaning Lynn or me or lots of others still planning to report for work today) to get yet another three-day weekend out of the year.

Memorial Day is considered — perhaps not this year in Colorado, where we are anticipating ever more snow, at least above 9,000 feet, again later today — the start of summer, and around here it could mean a day on the lake, with hot dogs and potato salad. (I am typing this while wearing a fleece, because it is still Not Warm in Gunnison.)

If we consider the word “memorial,” that suggests remembering those who have fallen, but so far every feature I’ve seen or read about has highlighted living war veterans, most often from World War II (although this year will be the 75th anniversary of D-Day, toward the end of the war, and if you’re doing math, these veterans are becoming a rare species), which was the last “great” war.

And that would be “great” in the sense of “magnificent,” with a clearly recognized victory. Every war since then seems to have ended at best in a stalemate, with results often amounting more to defeat or quagmire. I suppose we’ll always have Grenada to keep us warm.

When it comes to war remembrances, I feel rather detached. While my dad was in the Air Force when both Terri and I arrived, he was stationed in Denver, and when his term of service was up, he got his master’s degree to pursue a career in teaching. So we think of him as an historian rather than a soldier, and I imagine that’s how he identified himself as well.

I have my maternal grandfather’s dog tags from World War II, where he served in the Navy from Washington, D.C. (although based on a non-military incident he once related to me, he must have at least put an appearance in in Hawaii), but no military information to go along with it. Him I think of as a tax attorney and theatre benefactor (and mostly a grandpa), not a sailor.

I have several friends who have served in the military, one of whom explained that he is not a veteran, because you have to have logged a certain amount of time in a combat zone to earn that status. (Up until then, I had always assumed that anyone who served was awarded that status.) One of my friends saw combat in Vietnam, but he has not talked about it, at least to me.

But in terms of relatives or people I once knew who might have found themselves changed by their time in a military hotspot, I don’t feel very invested. I can’t name anyone my family lost in any war. Once, in Washington, D.C., Tia and I looked for people named Livermore on the Vietnam Memorial (which was a very moving and — in the middle of a metropolitan area — quiet place) and found a couple. I can now only remember a Keith, and we have no idea how distantly he might have been related to us, if at all. But that’s all we knew to look for on the wall, people with whom we shared a name.

Even locally, I just don’t know of many veterans to memorialize. A young man named Alun Howells went to the Middle East and never came home, but I didn’t know him or his family. I heard a second-, third- or fourth-hand story about someone I knew as a rather clumsy third-grader (who has now returned to the valley as a much-less klutzy law enforcement officer) watching some sort of lethal missile head directly toward the vehicle he was in, only for it to be deflected upward by the thinnest of wires somewhere before impact. I heard this in the context of his father, someone I know here locally, staying up all night, completely freaked out after hearing this story. And why not?

But this story is not mine, and I didn’t even hear it from either of the men most affected. Lynn’s mom and my mom once, at my request, worked together on a blanket that I could give to a fellow tapper named Susan, who all at once was very proud of her son serving in the Middle East but equally terrified he might not return home. (Happily, he did.)

So I think about people like Susan and her son, and the son saved by a flimsy piece of wire, and Alun Howells whom I didn’t know, but I don’t reflect on any immediate relatives or most of my friends, because the military experience is just not something that enters my daily consciousness.

We are in Year 17 of what I’m pretty sure is an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. (The British couldn’t win; the Soviets gave up after 12 years . . . those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it.) Depending on the day, we are either drawing down or ramping up troops in the Middle East. Maybe we send troops to Venezuela, maybe we don’t. One person on Capitol Hill wants to sells arms to the Saudis, and he’s the same one person unconcerned by military muscle-flexing from North Korea.

The world seems somewhat untethered at times. My friend Vikki, every Friday at noon, stands with a small cadre of friends on the corner of Main and Virginia. They hold a vigil for peace there. Vikki has done this, I think, since the U.S. invaded Iraq. It’s a long time, and she may have missed one Friday due to a medical issue. She plans to be there until all our troops come home.

I used to put in an appearance now and then, but as I let my life get busier, I let Vikki do my standing for me. It’s kind of the same notion that many of us take, that we will get a three-day weekend, some sun, a barbecue, a good start to summer . . . it wouldn’t hurt any of us to take a moment to consider those whose service gave rise to this ability to enjoy potato salad because it’s Memorial Day.

One thought on “War and Remembrance

  1. Grandpa was some kind of naval operations/logistics officer in WWII and was stationed, at least for some period of time, in Hawaii. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work (apparently 7th in order of precedence of US military medals – according to my minute of research). As a fun aside, at least to me, Grandpa was stationed in the same spot at the same time as one of my college friends’ grandfather. I have a photo of their group and a funny book of poems that they made up and put together while they were there.

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