Building a Monument the Fallen Deserve

I once heard an academic ask an elite soldier what distinguished the warrior's mindset from that of an ordinary person.  The soldier thought about it for a second and then asked the professor to imagine getting up in the middle of the night, half asleep, to grab a glass of milk.  Now imagine, he said, that you have a cat or dog that comes out of nowhere in the dark and startles you completely.  A normal person, he continued, will most likely toss the milk into the air, drop the glass in his hand, and maybe knock over half of the condiments in the fridge.  A warrior, he said, has so prepared his mind for unexpected things to jump out in the dark that not only will he keep from spilling the milk in his hand, but also a little voice inside his head will say, "Oh good, game on, let's go."

The academic laughed and said something about never wanting to accidentally sneak up behind the soldier while he was distracted, and the elite warrior grinned and said, "Oh, I wasn't talking about myself; my wife would tell you that my dogs regularly get the best of me at two in the morning."

That lighthearted moment has always stuck with me for a number of reasons.  For one, it was a charming and effective analogy from a well respected and admired combat veteran.  In a succinct way, he had described the need to pursue an almost Zen-like state to become a complete warrior.  What goes on around you is out of your control; what matters is that you have prepared yourself to remain calm and respond appropriately.

Second, his humorous story reflected a serious truth: service members engaging in combat are almost always "in the dark."  There are a hundred variables that are constantly changing in real time.  Even familiar terrain can turn dangerous in a flash, and every move a person makes is done behind a veil of uncertainty as to how each action will affect the next.  

Third, he made an important point that is not always easy for people to hear: the best warriors are those who — at some level — enjoy the fight.  They don't have to enjoy violence or death, but they do have to have a certain mentality that enables them to confidently engage against the unexpected.

Lastly, although nobody would have ever described him as anything other than an elite warrior, his self-deprecation implied that the work of being one never ends.  It is a role without a destination that requires a committed individual to constantly confront new challenges along a tortuous path.

When military service is understood in these simple terms, it is clear that fleeting Memorial Day remembrances are insufficient for honoring the sacrifices of those we have laid to rest.  Individuals who have pursued excellence in their lives and then offered those lives in service to others are the kinds of people who should be emulated every day.  In an age suffering from a scarcity of role models, it is easy to see how our culture has gone astray when the best among us lie quietly in cemetery fields.  If every schoolchild were tasked with learning about the lives and deaths of America's fallen heroes, no generation would reach maturity without comprehending the magnificent price paid for their own existence.  The "I-I-I, me-me-me" world of today flourishes only because too many of America's unworthy "leaders" have chosen to bury national character in the same graves as those who possessed personal character in spades.

Character is the lifeblood of a nation.  Exsanguinate a nation of its character, and it will die, never to rise again.  Memorial Day, then, should be celebrated as a time for national rejuvenation, when the living can learn from the dead, honor their character, and find from their sacrifice enduring meaning.  Instead, for too many, the holiday will be used as yet another chance to celebrate the living, while tarnishing the past.  Politicians who snicker at good manners and jeer at principle will find a way to make Americans alive today feel as if they are somehow "victims" and that the heroes who died on their behalf are somehow to blame.  Many Hollywood celebrities will take "selfies" glorifying their indulgent lifestyles, but few, if any, will pause to remember the final minutes of life endured by those who gave all, so that the callous and ignorant could play.

It is maddening.  Because if politicians and personalities truly cared about the nation's health and survival, even a small percentage as much as they do their own, they would encourage Americans to think of Memorial Day as a rare opportunity to drink from the fountain of character bubbling only because others once held the line.  Look at who these heroes were, they should say.  Learn from them.  Be like them.  Follow in their paths.  Step into their shoes, but be careful, for they will feel large for quite some time.  That they do not and that so many Americans will let Memorial Day slip by without falling to their knees in thanks is an agonizing reminder that while many Americans today still supply the nation with its vital supply of character, the country is nonetheless bleeding.

While the warriors whose lives were lost will always be worth remembering, so, too, are the lives of those fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters who have fought to keep on going.  You do not need to walk through a battlefield cemetery to see sacrifice.  Look into the eyes of someone who has lost a loved one, and you will see that the cost of military service is never borne by the warriors alone.  Losing someone in war is like losing a limb that no prosthetic can replace.  People suffer in silence because the scars from their injuries are not visible to others.  Their sacrifice continues unabated for all their days.  Again, if the politicians and personalities truly cared about America's survival, they would tell their voyeuristic "followers" to pay attention to the Americans who actually deserve their concern.  Look at these parents and spouses who suffer, so that you can live carelessly, they should say.  Do not pity yourself.  Never think yourself a victim.  Do not delude yourself into believing that you know pain.  These are the ones you should honor.  That they do not, and that so many Americans will fail to comfort those most in need of comforting, should be a source of great shame.

At the very least, we should honor the fallen by celebrating how they lived.  We should accept that much in this world is beyond our control but appreciate that how we respond to each challenge is what gives our lives meaning.  We should accept that much of the time, we are forced to confront obstacles while unprepared and "in the dark" and choose to keep going anyway.  We should always define life's inevitable struggles in ways that give us strength of purpose, rather than in ways that permit our tormentors to poison us with defeat and despair.  We should remember that however daunting the path before us, it is our time to fight for those who rest.

That is the kind of monument the fallen deserve — to have their memories reflected in our daily actions.  Surely that is not too much to ask.  What is the cost of living lives of honor and principle?  Of working against the current of our times to preserve American character?  Of confronting the many struggles around us without ever giving in?  Whatever the cost, it is far less than that paid by so many who can no longer speak.  Although, if you listen closely, you might still hear: Oh, good, game on, let's go.

Image: Jeff Turner via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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