I saw ten Mike Stephens photos in a Facebook post the other day by old friend Tom Sexton. Each of these painfully raw glimpses at pain and loss tears out a piece of your heart, and makes tactile and real the impact of combat loss to the family, friends, and brothers and sisters in arms of those lost in war.
The survivors remember, with an array of emotions. These photos hammer home the sadness and loss we feel—even when we are not among the directly affected like those pictured in Stephens’s evocative photographs. War’s insidious ripple effects span out through degrees of contact and over years of remembered shock and pain.
It is easy to understand why people place stickers on their vehicles saying things like “War Is Not The Answer.” Even in those situations when we determine that war is the necessary and best of all possible answers to a problem, we lose. Even existential struggles bring trade-offs. Cue World War II.
The photos keep our focus on the pain and loss, which we should never forget. To act with that awareness means to support veterans and their families, especially but not exclusively those who have lost family members, and to avoid unnecessary war. Also, we must recognize and identify other sequelae of war, like mental illness, incarceration, and substance abuse disorder. Wearing a flag pin or donating to a wounded veterans group are meaningful acts, but we also should voice our support and love for the damaged veterans among us when a political issue arises that impacts them.
But Memorial Day is about more than loss and grief. It should be a time to cherish the contribution of the fallen. We thank them because they put their lives on the line for us, in our name, and in our stead. They entered hell so that we might not have to. If you put on the uniform and take orders to go into combat, those you defend ought to be extremely appreciative. It is the ultimate act of selflessness in a world driven by self. We can and should argue about whether or not a war is moral and necessary, but any knowledge of human nature suggests that we should never be surprised at its possibility, if not inevitability.
If you are comfortable flying the flag and attending ceremonies, do it. If such things press your buttons, find your own way to honor those scared but brave women and men who died in our behalf. You don’t need to march behind a tank in a parade to honor them. Memorial Day need not be anything that encourages or glorifies war. We can mourn the dead of all wars, but these dead protected us. We are connected to them in a special way.
Thank you to all the parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, cousins, sons and daughters, friends, and strangers who answered the call. And special love to all who died doing so.
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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on nedbachus.com and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.