Memorial Day: We know the faces
Whenever I see a photo of a U.S. Marine, my mind is transported back to 40 years ago.
I know the face. It is mine.
It was back in 1982, when a formerly lumpy 26-year-old three-and-a-half-year college student clawed and crawled and pushed himself through boot camp by the ragged edge of tentative tenacity.
I know about the morning wake-up calls — drill instructors slammed trash can lids on the spotless floor, barracks overhead lights blazing in sleepy eyes like stinging sparks, the split-second scramble to spring up from bed, or fall off the upper bed like a bowling ball and standing at attention, in my underwear, in front of your rack.
I have heard the growling, rasping voices of DIs ripping through my ears like a school of piranhas. I know about the bedtime ritual, every recruit lying at attention in his bed, staring upward and reciting or singing in unison the Marine Corps Hymn.
I know about all the nuances, the humiliations, the hardships, the pain, the exhaustion, the merciless pressure to perform well, the discombobulating discomfort and the constant grappling with self-doubt that goes into making a Marine. I know these things because I lived them. I also know about the feelings of small personal victories of spurts of achievement, the joy of NOT being singled out by a DI. Someone had advised me before boot camp to try to keep the DIs from knowing your name as long as possible. They learned mine in the first 15 minutes.
I also know the pleasant itch of growing maturity and strength, and the feeling I could do something I never thought possible before — whether climbing a wooden tower 40-feet high and rolling over the top log without any safety harness. I know these things because I lived them. There were no secrets in our training platoon. Everyone’s character stood out as naked as a newborn guinea pig. We knew, or at least felt pretty sure, about how our fellow travelers in misery would respond when the only options were to stand head-on against the hurricane of unbearable challenge or to wilt. I learned most of the young men in my platoon were capable of great individual courage when the going got tough. It was a pleasure to observe this human dynamic from such an intimate viewpoint. I was proud to share this experience with them, even if I was one of the least.
Whenever I hear about a Marine that dies, I feel I have lost a brother of shared experience. I weep when I see his face — because I know it is my face. I know it is the face of every recruit who I battled through hell and emerged triumphant with on boot camp graduation day.
How did I end up there — a former full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a four-year college student saddled with arthritis after two previous major knee surgeries?
I was a child of the 1960s. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, my second-grade teacher announced it to the class; I think the school might have even turned the clock back to the time of the shooting as a tribute. For the next couple of days, nonstop coverage of the tragedy dominated every television station. I remember feeling a bit miffed they pre-empted my cartoon shows.
But, that kind of innocence faded in the tumultuous discontent of the mid-to-latter 1960s.
Wave after wave of Vietnam War protests — which never lacked for media attention — spurred violence on college campuses and elsewhere and created a national debate — both on a public level and in the fleshy tablets of each individual’s heart — about what the United States stood for; what it meant to be an American.
This breeding ground of introspection produced conflicting answers, but also a new search for common ground in the harvest field of ideas.
Out of this grew the phenomenon in the early 1970s, primarily through popular music and movies, about the peace generation, about how we needed to love everybody, to feel groovy and to accept each other despite our differences, whether they be intellectual, racial, economic or philosophical.
But, one stigma remained from the sixties — the conflicting concepts of “anti-war” or not. Even as a barely more than a boy, this train of thought seemed to be a dichotomy.
The inference was that if one supported the military actions and postures of the U.S., that he or she was pro-war.
I’ve always disagreed with that notion.
None of us — or at least 90 percent of people on all sides of the spectrum — believe war is a good thing.
In my opinion, war — as a reality — is not glorious. It does not express the noblest aspects of human courage or bravery. It always destroys — never builds. I once heard someone refer to war as “the Devil’s game.”
But, those sentiments don’t preclude the necessity for war in extreme circumstances.
Even though it is a grimy business, war is the only option to defend freedom from murderous tyranny — as we observed in Nazi Germany, in the brutal killing jungles of Southeast Asia, the bloody purges by the Russian and Chinese communists when they took control of their governments, and, as we see even now, the incursion of a bully nation in trying to conquer a neighboring nation and to deprive its citizens of basic freedom and self-determination.
But, even in wars where the opponents are clearly defined by conquest or defense of liberty, war is still a dirty, rugged and inhuman condition.
If there is any glory, it is in the courage and love of mankind by those who wage it against a belligerent.
To me, that’s what Memorial Day represents — saluting those who fight the battle on the side that yearns for a freer, more peaceful world once the shooting stops.
I appreciate an epitaph that John Maxwell Edmonds bestowed on those who didn’t survive the 1944 Battle of Kohima.
Edmonds wrote on behalf of the fallen: “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Hundreds of thousands of American men and women have perished in giving us and others the opportunity for brighter tomorrows — from the Revolutionary War, the Union troops in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the War on Terror, and other missions. In some cases, we didn’t record a long-term victory. But, in many of their endeavors, our heroic men and women in uniform or as civilians helped create lasting success.
Their glory — and the reason there is a Memorial Day — is they were willing to serve or to put themselves in harm’s way.
The enemies of freedom during the past 125 years butchered millions of citizens whose only crime was to want to be free and live their lives in a peaceful routine.
Freedom is not just a dusty word we drag out of the attic on patriotic holidays; it is a vibrant reality that too few appreciate when they have it and that everyone regrets when it is gone. That’s what Memorial Day is about — to honor those who died and who served to keep freedom alive at home and throughout the globe.