Reflections on Memorial Day — Past and Present

Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of the law, telling us that it is well that it should be delivered at the burial of those who fall in battle. For myself, I should have thought that the worth which had displayed itself in deeds would be sufficiently rewarded by honors also shown by deeds; such as you now see this funeral prepared at the people’s cost. And I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperiled in the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill. - Introduction to Pericles Funeral Oration, 431 BCE
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. - Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Lydia Bixby

My first experiences with dealing with the human costs of war didn’t come during a visit to the cemetery, a wreath laying ceremony, or that dreaded knock that no one ever wants to experience from either side of the door. Instead, I first experienced it in my grandmother’s kitchen as a young boy who showed an early and insatiable fascination with all things military. I had asked her about her younger brother Walter, who had been in the Navy during World War II. She showed me a picture of him, proud and smiling in his Navy uniform. She showed me his letters home — she had lovingly kept since he sent them from the USS Wasp, where he had been a TBM Avenger radio operator in Torpedo Squadron 14. And then she told me about his gunner, Joe Cross, who had come back to their house after the war following his release and recovery from a Japanese POW camp.

Walter had pushed Joe out of their crashing plane as he struggled to get his own parachute strapped, and never made it out himself. Joe made the trip back to our family’s home in Pennsylvania to tell the family what had happened, providing the closure that had been absent since Walter’s had been reported missing, lost somewhere over the Marshall Islands.

But those stories were all about someone else, someone my grandmother had only known from the yellowed correspondence I now held in my hand. The Walter she knew, and spoke about most eloquently, was a young, mischievous boy, constantly seeking new ways to get his older shopkeeper sister to give him money for candy and sweets. “Gimme some lettuce, Mamie!” That’s the Walter my grandmother remembered, the one that made her eyes grow misty as she talked. As I reflect now, decades later, it was the same look I saw in my great-grandmother’s eyes when I was given her first husband’s World War I dogtags and “All American” patch. He had been gassed in World War I, dying later from his injuries after returning from France. Me-Maw didn’t say a thing, but the welling tears in her eyes and clenched lips showed how the loss had never healed, even after six decades, a happy remarriage, and an ever growing family who loved her.

As I got older, my fascination with the military and the heroes who joined it only got more intense. Memorial Day meant military movie marathons, a real treat for a future Airman and strategist in the days before VHS, DVDs, On-Demand cable, and Netflicks. I remember watching Audie Murphy recreate the exploits that made him the most decorated soldier of World War II in To Hell and Back, at one point holding off a German advance almost single handedly from the top of a burning tank that was ready to explode — the same Medal of Honor winning moment recreated on the paperback cover.

As Murphy receives his Medal of Honor at the end of the movie, you can see him looking in the crowd of soldiers parading past for his lost buddies. They suddenly appear like ghosts, staring back at him while the patriotic music plays in the background moments before the screen goes black. Thematically, the scene — like Murphy’s eulogies in the book — brought some welcome closure. They had died bravely in a good war, enduring their privations with spirit and vigor. In one scene, Murphy and his battle buddy are shivering under their OD wool blankets in Italy, sipping from their canteen cups, anxiously waiting to initiate a 0500 attack against the Nazis. “Just sitting here being a target isn’t my idea of starting a day.” “Did ‘ya ever think of resigning?” “Who’d win the war if I did?” Both chuckle…

America wasn’t ready for the truth about modern combat. Not yet…

While my admiration and gratitude for the lost heroes of the past remains undimmed, my understanding of what the Memorial holiday represents has achieved greater granularity in the decades since then, much as our war movies have since To Hell and Back was filmed in 1955. Through the related experiences of the World War II and Vietnam Vets that I’ve befriended, and my own personal experiences in my own generation’s wars, I’ve learned that it’s not always so easy to find a Hollywood ending that helps you to more easily reconcile the losses.

There are indeed still heroic deeds and acts to commemorate that exemplify the meaning of “No greater love.” But there are many more stories in which just a few seconds difference, or a few feet to either side, would have meant one less flag placed above a stateside grave, one less scar on the landscape of a foreign land. The names read at the ceremonies now are not distant relatives long dead who we’ve never met, represented in our imaginations by a folded flag or well weathered dog tag. Now, the names include our neighbors and co-workers. Our friends and classmates. Our battle buddies and wingmen. Our brothers and sisters. Our mothers and fathers. Our husbands and wives.

As I watch To Hell and Back today with a combat veteran’s eyes, I can’t help but wonder what it must have really felt like for Audie Murphy to have to recreate all of his battles, and how difficult that last scene must have been for him — I wonder if he ever allowed himself to watch it. Hollywood has grown with us, and this weekend, many like me will stop whatever they are doing to watch Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 movie that took two months to shoot, and 54 years for our nation to prepare for. For many in my generation, it was the intense realism of this movie — and our identification with its characters — that steeled us for the wars that were to come in our generation. For many of us, it is the movie that best epitomizes what Memorial Day means to us now, featuring the humble and magnificent heroes of the Greatest Generation that we still hope we can measure up to someday, even after over fourteen continuous years of our own wars. In the ending scene, an aging Pvt James Ryan returns to that sacred spot of American soil in France — the American cemetery above Omaha Beach — to ask his fallen rescuer, Capt John Miller, if he has indeed fulfilled his dying command with his life since Normandy:

JamesEarn this. Earn it…

Today, I’m a military strategist, working amidst a network of fellow strategists, both junior and senior. It’s our job to help our nation’s leaders frame our thorniest problems, anticipate the risks of both action and inaction, and to assist them with the most difficult decision that any American leader ever has to make — the decision to consciously send America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way.

We’ve already been at war for a long time, with no end in sight. We know that no matter how diligent we are in our craft — no matter how many books we read, histories we review, or scenarios we rehearse — the chance that we’ll ever have a Memorial Day with no new names to add to the list of the fallen is virtually nil. But if we’re diligent in our studies and outreach, if we actively work with each other to improve the quality of our thought and communication, and if we can garner the even an iota of the physical and moral courage shown by our fallen to identify and confront difficult truths, then perhaps someday we too will be able to “earn it” someday. The most fitting tribute we can offer our fallen is to never stop looking for better ways to frame and address our nation’s challenges, in the hopes of keeping that honored list of names as short as possible in the future.

This Memorial Day, remember those who were taken from us far too soon. Raise a glass to them, with the hopes of toasting with them again someday in a far better place, just as warriors have always done. Remember them in their martial honor and glory. Even better, remember them in their youth, their joy, their love, and their mischievousness. Continue your tribute every day with your efforts to become better strategists, and by mentoring the aspiring strategists who will someday push the bar higher than we even thought was possible. Strategy never stops…and neither can we.

Dave “Sugar” Lyle is an officer in the USAF. The views expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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