Memorial Day Thoughts

God bless these guys! And don’t ask me whom I’m talking about. You know exactly whom I am talking about — treacly though the occasion known as Memorial Day may have become through repetition. Repetition is essential sometimes — consider Christmas, consider the Fourth of July — but it tends to dull the intensity with which new and hopeful occasions commence.

We are accustomed on Memorial Day to put on wistful faces as we remember our fallen. That our fallen merit remembrance cannot be in doubt, but so often? Didn’t we do this just the other day? …

I’ll tell you what we didn’t do just the other day: We didn’t engage in national fisticuffs over a decision that seemed sensible enough at the time, but in view of, shall we say, rising frustrations, has drained our energies and zeal.

Not many Americans ever thought Vietnam a particularly good idea; an inevitable idea was perhaps the most they would concede. The wisdom of invading Iraq had by contrast marinated in American minds since the Gulf War. We knew Saddam to be a bad actor. There was none of this Vietnam era stuff about his being "the George Washington" of his country, as the gulled and gullible said of Ho Chi Minh.

How is it possible not to feel better with the reckless Saddam behind bars? The problem — and it has been major, as everyone knows — concerns the durability of the diehards, who have on their side modern technology and a religious fanaticism such as Americans rarely have seen before.

It hurts American hearts to see American after American die in Iraq. We had thought it was all over. Not so. Or rather, the old kind of war — the kind to which past Memorial Days looked back — was over, but the new kind continued.

Part of hating the Iraq war is knowing ourselves to be in that new kind — facing the faceless instead of the massed ranks of The Enemy and knowing the rules have changed. We can’t do even what the British did 70 years ago under similar circumstances in the country they then called Mesopotamia and we now call Iraq. We can’t, that is, threaten entire villages with dire consequences unless they disgorge the killers — and then enforce those consequences. As we all, in the media age, know more about what goes on in war, so we find ourselves forced to pull some punches. Maybe that’s good. The world knows what the Nazis did at Lidice in 1943 — destroy a whole Czech village and its occupants as punishment for the nearby assassination of a prominent Nazi official. No such temptation exists nowadays.

Yet we step more delicately than would have been the case before, and delicacy breeds delay, and delay breeds exasperation, and exasperation breeds — in some hearts — sour defeatism.

How cruel and dispiriting to go about the business of crushing a rebellion, knowing how many compatriots are sick of the whole effort and just want out. You put on combat gear, and you step into the street — despite knowing the depth of the defeatists’ emotions. And sometimes the enemy whom the defeatists seem almost to be encouraging blows you sky-high. And what kind of reward, parents and spouses and children are obliged to wonder, is that for the faithful performance of duty? Is it true, after all, that "their’s not to make reply, their’s not to reason why"?

You don’t know unless you’ve been there, as — mercifully — few of us have. We haven’t charged Cemetery Ridge, let alone frozen at the Bulge or dodged snipers in Fallujah. To make out the men who have done these things, and do them still … to make them out as pawns or fall guys for cynical liars in high places is to do to them something profoundly awful, something crueler than any enemy could devise. It is to strip from their lives the meaning that sacrifice and sudden death bestow.

God bless their bombed and battered hides, their anything-but-feckless, anything-but-self-seeking souls, that they all might see victory and, once more, the safety of home.