By Gavin MacFadyen
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
As the country pauses to mark Memorial Day, it is important to remind ourselves what the annual observance means. To some, it has primarily become a day marking the entrance into summer – a long weekend of family and fun. It must never be forgotten that Memorial Day exists for the most solemn of reasons – a chance to reflect on the sacrifice of those who have fallen in service to the United States of America.
It was originally called Decoration Day, taken from the annual adorning of Civil War graves in the 1860s. It is worth remarking that the first name – “Decoration” – imposes a duty to engage in an overt activity and, in so doing, make a public acknowledgment of the sacrifice and short life of an unfortunate soldier.
The names of battles that resonate throughout our history fall from our lips with an ease that belies the unimaginable task undertaken by those who found themselves in the middle of a human horror – Gettysburg, Antietam, Normandy, Khe Sanh – the list goes on and on.
It is unacceptable that future generations ever reach the stage where these names exist only as words in a history text – read once and forgotten.
We strive to find lasting ways to immortalize the gift of freedom, security and a way of life that came at the highest price. Every village, town or city has somewhere in it a memorial in granite or stone dedicated to those to whom we owe so much.
On a larger scale are built lasting monuments such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the World War II and Vietnam memorials. Fittingly, they are located in Washington, D.C., mere steps from the other permanent tributes to those few individuals who, alone and together, are most responsible for the very existence of the country itself.
But the soldier often remains anonymous. That is one reason the listing of the dead by name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is such a powerful visual testament to – not only the fallen – but the nation’s torment over that conflict. Inevitably, war becomes a matter of debate among those in whose name it is waged.
The luxury of debate and dissent seems an indulgence when undertaken from the safety of our living rooms, political chambers or coffee shops when compared with the immediate peril faced by those on the battlefield – individuals whose own love of liberty was so great that it could not be fulfilled absent a conscious and, yes, compassionate decision to defend – on our behalf – that which they cared for so deeply.
None of them set out to be heroes. They were the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers common to every community, large and small, across this great land. But their sense of duty, and the quiet honor with which they undertook it, was decidedly uncommon.
It is the fact of their ordinariness, of the everyday qualities recognizable in all of us, that made their journey all the more incredible. The courage to storm the beach at Normandy, to walk into a jungle in Southeast Asia, to patrol a dusty street in Baghdad is almost beyond comprehension for its depth and unassailability.
They left behind artifacts that speak across generations – a musket ball, a weathered journal, a cap, a boot, a uniform or a pin. For many, this is their only contact with a soldier – found in a museum or family keepsakes. Simple things, yes, but endowed with meaning because those who carried them did so in the prime of their lives so that all of us could march toward a future that they themselves would not enjoy.
We live in a cynical age that ridicules sentiment. This is a day to set cynicism aside and drape ourselves in the peace of a patriotic feeling not needing any further adornment.
Yes, war diminishes us all as a human family. But we have also been lifted high on the shoulders of the young and the brave, incurring a debt that can never be repaid but must forever be acknowledged – with grace, gratitude, humility and more thanks than mere words could ever express.
Gavin MacFadyen is a writer and an attorney living in Jamestown.