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A Prayer for the Fallen

I wrote another blog about Memorial Day a couple of days ago that focused on the idea that we should celebrate the day by exercising our freedoms, particularly the freedom we have to enjoy ourselves and our loved ones in peace. It is to protect this freedom that we have a military. And it is this freedom that those who fall in combat die defending. So let us celebrate. But I wrote then and believe that we must also reflect.

As a historian and a veteran I have undertaken a study of the actual combat experiences of my contemporaries of the Vietnam Era. As part of that effort I have contrasted these memories with the much more raw ones of those who fought in later conflicts, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. There are enormous differences between the eras.

By the time America’s involvement in Vietnam came to an end the American public by and large had come to blame the war on those who fought it. When servicemen returned home they were advised not to travel in uniform in order to avoid unpleasant and sometimes violent confrontation with a public that despised them. One may argue the justice of the war, but this injustice is undeniable. To send men against their will to fight a war that no one wanted and then to vilify them when they did what they were called to. It was a particularly shameful episode in our history.

Many of those who went to war in Vietnam, especially in the beginning, were still caught up in the national hangover of World War II and under the spell of a Kennedy-esque idealism that saw American involvement in Vietnam as a sacred duty to defend and perpetuate the blessings of Americanism everywhere. I think they, we, my generation, were the final acolytes of the bright and shining lie of modernism: that through education and technological advance liberation and enlightenment were inevitable. Many of those who volunteered to go to war in Vietnam did so with pure motives, even if what motivated them turned out to be purely absurd.

I don’t want for a moment to suggest that today’s military does not serve with the same valor or devotion as those who served in the past. But I think one of the outcomes of the Vietnam era was the death of post-war idealism. I have spoken with many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and have not found the quasi-religious idealistic patriotism that animated the previous generation in the beginning of the war. Many cannot even tell me why they were there, or why America was there. No matter. In the end I think every generation of warriors finds their courage and willingness to sacrifice in their love for each other.

I do think that the all-volunteer force with which America must now project its power makes the spilling of American blood easier on the politicians. Not faced with the prospect of conscription for themselves or their children, Americans can indulge in a forced and false gratitude toward those who serve and flip the channel and forget about it. I recently read the experience of an Iraq war vet who wrote to the effect that they [the soldiers] pretended to protect people who pretended to appreciate it. I think he was writing about the Iraqis but I think it does apply to many of us. One wonders which is worse: an honest and passionate though wholly misinformed rejection of a war (it wasn’t the rejection of the war that was misguided, it was where to place the blame), or a cheap and passionless jingoism.

I prayed a prayer for Memorial Day. I prayed that we would remember and honor those who were willing to sacrifice everything in the service of this country, and did. The blood that is shed for freedom is the supreme human manifestation of love. But I also prayed this. I prayed that the day will come soon when we will no longer need to raise memorials to fallen comrades. When we will no longer see friends and mothers and widows weeping at decorated graves. The triumph of peace is promised at the final trumpet. But it falls to us, the living, to work for peace today.

And so I ask that on this Memorial Day we reflect a moment in the midst of our celebration that freedom is paid for with blood. The blood of Christ shed on the cross by God’s love bought for us who are his followers the freedom to love as he loves. Let us resolve to work for peace and justice by loving as Jesus loves, so that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”

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