I have to admit that Memorial Day, like Veteran’s Day, affects me little. I’ve lost no one dear to me and so while I appreciate the sacrifices made by our military service men and women, my heart doesn’t ache today like so many folks’ hearts ache.
And that’s the real problem, me thinks.
For too many of us, the loss is real but not in a gut wrenching, forever a heart hole that can never be filled way. If it were, there would be better care for our veterans who come back forever harmed by their time served. If it were, there would be better care for our soldiers who are in danger every day. And if it were, there would be fewer reasons to put them in those places in the first place.
But we live in a country that romanticizes the idea of military service. And at best covertly and at worst overtly ignores the pain and suffering of those who gave their time, service, and lives (both in combat and living with PTSD, injuries, etc) for the good of our country. We live in a country that loves having parades and waving flags, but not paying for veteran health care. We live in a country where war is something that happens elsewhere and where the collateral damages of those wars are not paid by enough of our citizens to truly be understood as a debt that can never be truly paid.
Years ago, I taught sophomores Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum Est. In order to make sense of the poem, we had to learn about World War I. I could tell by their expressions that it was a time so far in the past that I may have been describing a science fiction world.
I know some of those young men and women grew up and went into various branches of the military. And for them, that science fiction world became their reality. And for that, my heart aches. Because no parade can fix the injury experienced when the romanticized lies of childhood and innocence and privilege are stripped away by reality. So enjoy those parades and barbecuing with friends. But don’t look away from that combat veteran standing on the street corner holding a tattered cardboard sign. He or she deserves at least your eye contact.
Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. *
*Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”