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May 25th, 2009
This Martian Life: On Memorial Day

The World War II monument at the Texas State War Memorial. Photo by Sean Wardwell.

This Martian Life: A Column
Managing Editor

“We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”

Lt. Col. John McRae -. May 3, 1915

I make it a point to read that poem, called In Flanders Fields, every Memorial Day. It was written in a war that many thought would be the last. I suppose every soldier, at one point or another, thought their war would be the war to end all war, as well.

My other Memorial Day tradition is to visit the Texas State war memorial. Situated in a corner garden next to Flowers Hall, the memorial contains monuments to the students who gave their lives in WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Soon, sadly, another monument dedicated to the war dead of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror will join the memorial. Even sadder are the names that are already destined for it.

I pause and think about what might have been the last normal day of their lives. What were these people thinking on, perhaps, Dec. 6 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor was attacked? What did they want to be before they heard the guns? Who did they love, and who loved them? How did they live before they had to give their lives?

These are good questions to ask on Memorial Day. I hope I’m not alone in asking them. Too often, Memorial Day is seen as an excuse to get away to the river or get a great deal on something. How many of us really take the time to think about the sacrifices this day commemorates?

I won’t write some flowery prose about the glory that comes from giving one’s life to his country because I don’t believe it. I think it’s far better to live for one’s nation rather than die for it. Likewise, I won’t use Memorial Day, nor the dead, as a political weapon, as I have seen both parties do. That’s just distasteful and disrespectful.

What I will do, instead, is ask everyone to just stop and think for a moment. Think, without being overly morbid, about the last days of these soldiers’ lives. Think about what they put themselves through. Think about what they witnessed. Think about how quickly or slowly their lives were taken from them. Think about the totality of the sacrifice.

Now, put yourselves in their place. What would you do? These were not superpeople. They, like the rest of us, were ordinary citizens who were called upon to do the extraordinary for low pay and bad food.

At some point in that process, I hope it becomes clear that “they” could just as easily be “you.”

Words like freedom, duty and sacrifice are in danger of becoming kitsch, either through our own cynicism, or through the general dumbing down of the political process. These are serious words though, meant for serious times. So, despite being a hawk or a dove, despite cynicism and despite the politics of the catchphrase, take a quiet moment to think about all those names on all those memorials. Monday, Memorial Day, would have been a good day to do that. Any other day would do as well. Think about the freedom you enjoy because someone put on a uniform to ensure it. Think about their duty to us, and their sacrifice to the same.

Maybe, if we did, we could truly honor those that died by creating a world without war. It’s an old hope, but a good one. Memorial Day isn’t merely a day off. Some people had to take their entire lives off to make this day happen. If we fail to honor them on their day, then, in the words of McRae:

“…If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

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