The thing to remember about war is that there are very few moments of individual gallantry. The individual combatant rarely dwarfs his surroundings. No John Waynes to ride through a hale of enemy fire to save the day. In fact, those one-dimensional embodiments of masculine striving are usually the first to die. Moments of war rarely allow for clarity. War is a chaos where platoons of men are condemned to slaughter one another. War is a horror where one is ordered to kill strangers, to run in the face of enemy fire, to ignore the sight of his friends as they crumple to the ground. This lack of clarity becomes transparent to every soldier as his captain shouts, “Over the top men, everyone out!” In that moment, each soldier finds himself engulfed in death and confusion. There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan”, in which a young man has his arm blown off. He stumbles around, gazing at his shattered limb, unsure of what to do.
War is confusion. War is detached horror.
I mention this only to point out that those Americans, who grappled with man’s worst, did so to preserve man’s best. As we approach yet another Memorial Day, it hardly seems enough to remember these soldiers in cliques of gallantry. It is not appropriate to dress up in historical garb and fondly re-enact the bloodiest chapters of our history – as to Civil War and world war enthusiasts. It is not enough to reduce the service of our patriots to an excuse for a really big sale – as do retailers. It is not enough to dilute this holiday with ostentatious displays of consumerism and pageantry. After all, the importance of celebrating Memorial Day is not to celebrate per say, but to confirm the significance of lost lives. By coming together in a large communal ritual, we reinforce the notion that these soldiers, that these people, have actually died. And that they died to strengthen our individual freedoms.