Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day, 2011

It's another Memorial Day in America. For the first time, we are involved in three separate wars. Here's an aerial view of the section of Arlington Cemetery that is set aside for casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Image credit: Screenshot of TangoGPS display of Google satellite imagery by Cujo359

Click on the picture and look carefully, you can see the headstones. There are lots of them.

It's called Section 60, which some call the saddest acre in America. Ignore the great war of my formative years, Vietnam, and that would certainly be an accurate label. It might be even if one doesn't ignore our tragic misadventure in Indochina. At least back then the country cared that a war was going on. It sometimes seems we don't even remember these wars, and the victims of them who are buried here.

On this Memorial Day, like just about all the Memorial Days of the last decade, I find myself wishing we had real political leaders who kept us out of these useless tragedies, or were really willing to risk their careers to end them. Unfortunately, about all we're left with are the opportunists, crooks, and nonentities who run things now.

America's saddest acre won't be closing anytime soon.

UPDATE: Speaking of Vietnam, Dana Hunter wrote about some of her father's memories of Vietnam today:
My dad used to tell me stories.

He'd been in Vietnam. Infantry, United States Army. He'd gotten drafted while switching colleges (never let it be said grades aren't important: they can keep you from getting shot, for instance). And it was a hard year. That year changed his life. He went to war. He lost half his hearing when someone shot a .45 near his ear in a tunnel; he'd had his jaw broken by a bullet; he still has bits of shrapnel working their way out of his chest from a grenade wound he took to the ankle. He still won't sit with his back to a door. And for years, he could only allow bits and pieces of that year to surface. He'd talk about it, but only in fragments. Some of it he barely talked about at all.

Each of the dead has stories to tell, and each of them is missed by someone. That's the universal tragedy of war.

Speaking of stories, somehow this one by Army LTC Robert Bateman made the rounds back in 2007 and I missed it:
"10:36 hours: The clapping starts at the E-Ring. That is the outermost of the five rings of the Pentagon and it is closest to the entrance to the building. This clapping is low, sustained, hearty. It is applause with a deep emotion behind it as it moves forward in a wave down the length of the hallway.

"A steady rolling wave of sound it is, moving at the pace of the soldier in the wheelchair who marks the forward edge with his presence. He is the first. He is missing the greater part of one leg, and some of his wounds are still suppurating. By his age I expect that he is a private, or perhaps a private first class.

"Captains, majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels meet his gaze and nod as they applaud, soldier to soldier. Three years ago when I described one of these events, those lining the hallways were somewhat different. The applause a little wilder, perhaps in private guilt for not having shared in the burden ... yet.

Fridays at the Pentagon
I spent most of my adult life working with and around people like this. They are good people - maybe a little conservative for my tastes, but good people. Their sense of duty shows in this story, the duty of superiors to their people as much as the reverse. So does their sense of honor. You might think, based on things I've written before that this is an odd thing for me to write, but articles like that are more about the rare opportunists who excel in the civilian world.

So, if you wonder why, instead of extolling the exploits of Seal Team 6, I focus on the cost of the wars we wage, it's because I've seen that cost for far too long. I've seen it in broken minds, broken bodies, and amusing stories of comrades long gone. As I wrote in my first Memorial Day post:
To be a young soldier in a war is to learn the meaning of "choiceless". They are usually told what to do, where to go, and what not to do or where not to go. The consequences for not following those directions can be drastic. They are often even told when they can sleep and eat, in contradiction to what seems like the most basic human instincts. When they are sent to a war their only choices are to serve or face jail, or worse. That's their duty.

Our duty is to make sure that they aren't sent into a war for frivolous reasons, which as I've mentioned before, we have not done. The other part of our responsibility is to help the soldiers who are hurt in those wars as well as we are able. In that way we've also failed to do our duty.

I think the best way we can thank all these people for what they have done for us is to live up to our end of the bargain.

A Way To Say Thank You
We've done a really lousy job of that lately.

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