Memorial Day, as every other blog post today reminds us, is supposed to be about more than cookouts and baseball and the kickoff to summer. Memorial Day, we are reminded, and hopefully we do recall, is a day to remember the fallen soldiers, the casualties of war, those who died fighting for freedom (or at least the American expression of freedom). I didn't really want to write a Memorial Day post this morning--not because I dislike the holiday's somber roots, but because I'm so poorly situated to comment upon them. It's not just that I haven't served, but that in leaving the hills and seeking more book learning than most other folks, I have found myself in a cultural place where almost no one served in uniform.
Both my grandfathers served in the Second World War. I suppose they had to enlist or be drafted, but to hear the few remembrances they shared with me about those times, I don't think the compulsion mattered to them. One of those men enlisted with pride, convinced he was defending the freedom of his adopted country--a belief he took with him to his grave. I think he was right. The other man mostly wanted to escape the hills, so he joined the navy and wound up in a tin can in the Pacific--a fate he found more confining than the hills--but I never heard him second guess his decision to enlist. The men of that generation, the ones who came home at least, remembered the solemnity of this day.
My father could have served in Vietnam, but he didn't see much threat to American freedom in southeast Asia. He hoped and prayed his lottery number wouldn't come up. When he scraped by and missed the draft, he counted his absence of service a blessing rather than a missed opportunity. The men of his generation are divided to this day between those who went and those who didn't.
During my time, I could have volunteered to put myself in harm's way for my country. I don't know if the military would have had much use for a guy with terrible eyesight, a talent for math, and a love of the poems of Walt Whitman, but I never gave any of the branches a chance to find a use for me. We're an all volunteer military now, and only a tiny sliver of America volunteers. The men (and women) of my generation are mostly on my non-serving side of the ledger.
There's just not many from the Greatest Generation left. Those who returned to us have almost all began a well deserved rest, and I hope they find peace in a grave of old age as much I hope their fallen brothers found peace in a grave of youth.
Those of us who remain, we mostly don't know much about the sacrifices that united the prior generations. They're just stories heard on the laps of old men. I count our ignorance of the sacrifices of our grandfathers, and those who never had the chance to be grandfathers, mostly to the good. Total war is a high price to pay for wisdom, and the ultimate sacrifice is too high a price to ask of one to unite the rest. My generation is fortunate to have not learned those lessons directly.