Like many other things in our society in these challenging days of Covid-19, the Memorial Day celebrations in 2020 will undoubtedly be abbreviated from the usual practices. There will be no Indy 500 with the solemn pre-race touch honoring our American war dead. Some cemeteries may be decorated with American flags on veterans’ graves, but probably not as much as in previous years. Churches that choose to honor those who gave the last full measure will likely do so by video conference. Social networks will have their Memorial Day moment, without a doubt, most of them well-intentioned and sincere, some as insipid and irrelevant as those who publish them.
In any case, who could have foreseen that during the spring of 2020, more Americans would be claimed by the coronavirus in these few weeks than were killed in action in Vietnam for more than a decade? It is a distressing situation, this terrible disease, fraught with uncertainty and fear and, for some, utter despair. It is a challenge that will demand the best of us, from the patience and determination of our citizens and trained first responders to leadership at all levels of government. The creativity and flexibility of our free enterprise system will also be critical in the coming months, just as it was during World War II.
It is not a cliche to say that our current situation is another in a long list of crises this nation has faced. Because it is. Progress may be slower and less linear than we would prefer, and the price in lives will continue, but we will somehow overcome it. We always do.
So is there a connection between our war dead and the current crisis?
More than a million members of the American military have been killed in action in this nation’s wars. They are buried throughout the United States and in foreign cemeteries, especially in Europe. They were from small towns and big cities. Some had wealth and privilege, while many others had very little. Some had worked on farms or in factories or had been public school students or teachers. Some were married while others had just started shaving. Some were seasoned military professionals, while others were upset about the Boston massacre or Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor or 9/11, and wanted to strike a retaliatory blow. Most, however, were determined to do their part in uniform to the best of their ability and then go home.
These are different times, even beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Less than one percent of the American population is serving in the military. Therefore, most American families have little or no connection to the military. Many of those family members have never even had a friendship with someone who is serving or has served in uniform. There is a disconnect that creates a social divide as military men and women serve and sometimes die, while the nation at large barely notices. The burden falls on very few and it is an increasingly heavy burden. Several universities have created safe spaces on campus whereby students with snowflakes in between could avoid being offended by the “micro-aggression” of a sideways glance. Don’t look for them on Parris Island anytime soon. Certainly at different times.
Let’s go back to the connection between our war dead and the current crisis. What is it?
Well, it is the fact that many of us feel that we are facing real life and death circumstances perhaps for the first time in our lives. And it is not pleasant. Our war dead faced those feelings, albeit much more intensely, in the dangerous existence they encountered.
It is about feeling the temporary loss of personal freedom, either by edict or a penchant for self-preservation, or both. And few of us like it, temporary or not. On a broader level, the idea of freedom was important to our war dead, so they were willing to die to ensure their survival. In fact, more than a million did.
And it is knowing that, in the end, so aptly described in James 4:14, “You are just a vapor that appears for a moment and then vanishes.” Our war dead understood perhaps more deeply than anyone how fragile and fleeting human life is. And how small (and sometimes helpless) we really are in the workings of the world.
So think of them this weekend, our dead American war. We are connected, whether we realize it or not, as fellow citizens, as human beings. They deserve a place in our collective memory. They deserve our respect and admiration.
However, above all they deserve our eternal gratitude.