Colonel Bower, having bailed out of his bomber, landed on a mountaintop that long, cold night and waited for the dawn. He wrapped his silk parachute around him till Chinese troops found him. He would live to join the rest of his crew, make it home, and live to a ripe, fully earned old age. He would attend many a reunion of the Doolittle Raiders. When they played Taps at his burial this month, it sounded almost triumphant. Like a homecoming. He had joined good company.
Let no one think on this Memorial Day that war is all derring-do. It is also defeat and fear and pain and humiliation and death. It is the Bataan Death March and the fate of American prisoners lined up in a field at Malmedy, their hands bound behind them, and machine-gunned. The Germans had no time to take prisoners in the Battle of the Bulge, which was going to be their last great counteroffensive, the one that would turn the tide and save the thousand-year Reich. It didn't.
Today we remember not just heroes but the cannoneers who didn't have time to learn their guns before they died in the mud, the troops whom disease took before the enemy could, the nurses blown apart while administering to the wounded and dying, the young conscripts -- ill-trained, ill-clothed and ill-prepared -- sacrificed in America's forgotten war in Korea. No, let no one think on this Memorial Day that war is all derring-do. It is disaster and chaos and death multiplied.
You who read this in freedom, and I who write it in the safety and comfort of a clean, well-lighted office, can do so only because, in a thousand places at a thousand times, grimy, terrified, unsure young soldiers in the fullness of life were willing to give theirs.
That is the price of our forgetful freedom.
There is nothing we can do for the dead now, but there is much we can do for the living. We can ask where our wounded and convalescent are, and how they are faring. We can see that they, and their families, are cared for. And when they are stacked in hospitals like so much cordwood, put out of our sight like something indecent, we can demand to know what is being done for those who have given so much.
For we do not live in some abstract realm -- like the past or in politicians' speeches or in Memorial Day editorials -- but in the here and very now. In waiting rooms. In hospital wards. In veterans' homes. On military posts. But even on this Memorial Day, even while remembering, we forget.