Memorial Day 2008

“We’re a military at war, not a nation at war,” the lieutenant colonel said ever so quietly but harshly as he leaned across the table at an Austin, Texas-area Rotary Club luncheon.

We’re a military at war, not an entire country,” the newly promoted Marine major said vehemently, in the confines of a classroom at the USMC Command and Staff College at Quantico, Va.

“You know what the problem is, Col. Bay. We’re here at war, and the rest of the country is on its butt,” the operations sergeant said to me.

Let’s review the timeline. The lieutenant colonel said that to me in spring 2006. The Marine major said that to me the first week of May 2008. As for the ops sergeant, his blunt instrument of an observation hails from summer 2004, delivered in and around Baghdad and delivered often.

For the mass audience, I have scrubbed his language. But in the cinema verite version I wouldn’t — not for the sake of drama or display of tough guy anger, but for his genuine expression of deep disappointment and thorough disgust.

Anyone who spends time in the field encounters outstanding men and women from the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and CIA, but since 9-11 the American military and their families have certainly borne the brunt of our war efforts.

Maybe it was always so. My diet of U.S. Civil War histories has increased in the last couple of years — the 150th anniversary of Fort Sumter is less than three years away. The Civil War remains America’s “great brush with history” and close brush with national demise. I’ve paid more attention to descriptions of the Union’s “home front,” particularly in the Midwest and Illinois — and I am certain this is due to our current experience with the War on Terror’s complex home front. At times anti-war sentiments in the North were expressed as disdain for Union soldiers.

Yet in the wake of the greatest, most destructive war the United States has ever experienced, Memorial Day emerged. Decoration Day, a day in May set aside for “decorating” the graves of dead soldiers with flowers, began as a Union observance. The Website notes that Southern states “refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).”

Memorial Day became a national day, a healing day of remembrance to say “thanks,” no matter one’s history.

Public observances have waxed and waned. Post-World War II, they waxed. Post-Vietnam, in many places they faded.

Fellow soldiers keep the faith, however. On May 28, 2005, I delivered a brief Memorial Day speech at the Travis County International Cemetery. The place is one of those plots of ground with a decidedly checkered past. In the 19th century, it was a “paupers graveyard.” Today, a group of Hispanic veterans, Tejanos in Action, tends the graves of indigent American veterans buried in the cemetery.

The ceremony was simple. A Tejanos honor guard conducted a flag ceremony. A bugler played taps, and the honor guard fired a 21-gun salute. I kept the speech short — and here’s the gist of it:

“… At one time, this cemetery is what another era called a potter’s field … a gravesite for the destitute, for the disenfranchised, for the socially disdained, for those grand society might conveniently forget.

“… Tejanos in Action has changed that sad legacy … for this cemetery is now dedicated to remembering, not forgetting. Thank you and your organization for this gift, which enriches our history and in doing so enriches our spirit and … our democracy. The mission of each generation is to take what we have and do better, do more with it. Liberty gives us this chance, to choose to take a sad and forgotten plot and turn it into a beautiful, peaceful place.

“… Memorial Day is about taking a moment to reflect and to remember, to reflect and to respect the special gift of those who did their duty.”

And — I’ll add in 2008 — it is a day to thank those who do their duty now.

NOTE: The entire speech may be found at the May 28, 2005, here.