Memorial Day - John Samuel Tieman

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Axar.az presents an article "Memorial Day " by John Samuel Tieman.

At a military funeral, there's this moment. After the committal service, after the rifle volley, after “Taps”, the flag, that covered the casket, is presented to the next of kin. With surprising intimacy, the soldier who presents the flag says softly, “On behalf of ... a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honourable and faithful service.” The sadness is impossible to sentimentalize.

On the 29th of May, we observe Memorial Day. We often mistake it for Veterans Day. Veterans Day celebrates all veterans. Memorial Day is for the war dead. I'm not shocked that we confuse these two. An indistinguishable sentimentality conflates the meaning of both. This Memorial Day, for example, I have no doubt that someone somewhere will say something like, “All our soldiers are heroes.” Really? Heroes? All? There was this guy in my unit, the 4th Infantry, in Vietnam. He died when the truck he was driving rolled over a landmine. He was delivering clean laundry. He wasn't a hero. He was just a GI driving a truck. War calls for mourning. Such public mourning calls for clarity, not sentimentality.

Loving leads to mourning. But sentimentalizing war is, in one sense, neither mourning nor memorializing. It obscures both history and understanding and the varied meanings we can gather from understanding. Sentimentality puts up a rose-tinted barrier that blurs the reality that war is rarely simple. Some died in a good war. Some died for a bad cause. Some deaths are heroic. Some aren't. This medic died while saving a buddy. That nurse died while just sitting on her bunk when the rocket hit. But here's what they have in common. They died. We owe them more than saccharine platitudes. We shouldn't turn our war dead into Hallmark cards.

In truth, there is nothing we can say or do that is adequate, that captures the enormity of the sacrifice these men and women made for their country. But remember we should. We should remember that more causalities come from bad politics than enemy artillery. Our sentimentality also prevents us from realizing another simple truth, that many suffer deaths that are far from heroic. We're trapped in a sentimentality that always remembers the Medal Of Honor winner, and forever forgets the private who died of some exotic disease in the fetid swamp of an unjust war.

I have a solution for getting over this sentimentality. Let's remember all who died. All. Let's rethink Memorial Day. For the men, women, children, soldiers, civilians, friends, enemies – for all who died during our wars – I would like a day in which we mourn for every one of them. Let's begin with our enemies. It's impossible to be sentimental about that. Perhaps that will make us realize this simple truth. We demonize the enemy and sentimentalize our own, but the result is the same. They become less than human.

When I pray for our war dead, I often think that the enemy is that flaw in the human heart that prevents us from seeing the other as fully human. Because I am a Vietnam veteran, I have more to remember than most. I remember Rob, my childhood companion, who died while on patrol with the 1st Cavalry Division. I remember a nameless soldier who was shot right in front of me. I pray for them. But I won't pray for them more on Memorial Day than I do any other day.

So let me make this clear. These men and women, mostly boys and girls really, deserve a day of reflection and prayer. I begrudge no one in their Memorial Day parade. I've marched in one or two myself. I begrudge a sentimentality that dehumanizes by oversimplifying. On Memorial Day, above all other days, we should honor our war dead with truth, not sentimentality. Some died for a just cause like fighting Nazis. Others died in wars that should never have been fought. It's complicated. Contemplating that complexity is what honors the fallen, because it makes two implicit promises. We promise to learn from the cause that was just. We promise to never let another soldier die in vain.

2023.05.29 / 09:40
John Samuel Tieman
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