Memorial Day commemorates the loss of men and women who proudly served their country. Originally known as Decoration Day, it was founded after the Civil War in order to honor the losses of both Union and Confederate soldiers. While allowing for family and friends to travel to their loved ones final resting places to decorate the grave sites with flowers, flags, and other personal effects, this special day also provided the opportunity for picnic lunches where stories were told and remembrances exchanged to keep the memory of their loved ones alive.
In most instances, we know when, where, and how the soldier died. What is never clear, however, is why each did what they did. What was the reason or the clarion call for them? Why did they go? Why did they feel they could give their last full measure for their country?
The typical pat answer is “to protect my country, to protect my loved ones.” But there was more. Some went to escape a life that had no future. A few would join the armed forces in order to leave romantic situations that ran afoul. Others felt the excitement, the rush of battle, and the idea of kill or be killed, while several needed discipline and a firm hand to be guided along life’s path. Many wanted the uniform, the respect, and the potential glory that went with it.
Regardless of why men and women went to battle, they all arrived at a moment when the veneer of duty and obligation were shed and they found themselves face-to-face with their own mortality. A few shirked and cowered, but many responded in a way that was reflected by François de La Rochefoucauld (a 17th century French classical author) who said, “Perfect valor is to behave, without witnesses, as one would act were all the world watching.” At that moment, most were deathly afraid. They were human, with real flesh and blood. In fact, if you asked any of them, from the Congressional Medal of Honor winner to the private that cleaned the latrine (and history has shown that sometimes there were one and the same) about being a hero, they would blush at the word and the idea. Yet, how loosely we use that word today and how cavalierly we throw the idea of a hero around.
The decoration that I placed today respectfully recognizes what the great Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.”
Simply put, when their moment came, our fallen soldiers did the right thing.
If only we could say the same for our civilian leaders and our commander-in-chief.