Today is Memorial Day and you’ll see a lot of words reminding you of the sacrifice of American service personnel who gave their lives for this country. But there is a nuance on this subject that some miss.
It is the difference between what they fought for and what they died for.
As an Army vet myself who served in peacetime, I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of men who served in war, specifically the Vietnam War, as I was active duty between 1980-84. Those men told me, as I later read in books like Sir John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle,” that men under fire are not fighting for flag, ideals, or even in the most personal sense for their country. They are fighting for the man next to them.
Of course, they are called to the colors by love of nation, perhaps even idealism. However, when the balloon goes up all that goes out the window, shorn off by the rough realities of life in combat. What is left is a fierce devotion to survival and an even stronger devotion to not let down the men around you. That’s what makes rational men with families, men who love life, pounce on grenades to save their comrades. It makes them volunteer to be the man who is left behind to cover the evacuation of his brothers in arms. They don’t fight for democracy at that point. They fight for a bond closer than anything Thomas Jefferson ever knew.
If they don’t survive, then indeed what they have died for is their country, i.e., for all of us. Their sacrifice enables us to live in freedom, actually to even live. It permits us to organize and run a nation based on our own ideas and values. That is something many foreigners, even close cousins like the Brits, rarely get about America.
Given my Army service in Germany, time in college overseas, and my work in DC, I gratefully count many foreigners amongst my friends. Some close friends. When conversations come up about a typically American avocation like guns they are clueless. They see the Second Amendment as strange, if not suicidal. This is because they are trying to look at America through their own national prism. When I mention that guns made this nation, settled it, and keep it free they scoff.
When I try to point out that American guns play the role that broadswords and the longbow played for the Brits or the rapier for the French, I’m just met with incredulous glances. What they fail to ken is the deaths in battle we honor today make those special qualities that are the United States, details like the 2A that set us apart from our progenitors in Europe and elsewhere, a viable national reality. Those men and women in our uniforms may not have fought for the flag per se. But their ultimate payment of self keeps it flying.
So bear that in mind at your cookouts and beach outings today. Maybe this Memorial Day say a little prayer for those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who found different beaches, like ones named Omaha and Utah. If you’re of a mind to, as I have, perhaps even visit a veteran’s cemetery for a small time and pay your respects.
It’s not exactly a great burden to do so and it will remind you and maybe your family about what those honored dead fought and died for.
It will recall, as Lincoln said, their last full measure of devotion.
And that’s a good way to spend any day.