One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?


All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

12 thoughts on “One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

  1. So true. We who do not serve don’t feel the pain. My dad served as a chaplain in WWII. He joined voluntarily, leaving my mother with five of us kids. I wonder how many of us would be willing to leave spouse and family to do that today. As Americans, we are in such a different place now. We are polarized rather than unified. Sad and painful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Lois. I find it a shame that the dark calculus of why we are estranged from each other is hidden in all the shouting. And, of course, that stupid wars, especially the one in Afghanistan, proceed without end, as Orwell predicted. Do the generals even know that the British and then the Soviets failed there long before we arrived? Do they offer any new solution? It is a sinkhole of men.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Three Worlds One Vision and commented:
    “We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.”

    Thank you, Dr. Stein, for reminding us of the families in the “Other America” who are making the ultimate sacrifice in America’s endless wars.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr. Stein, every day should be Memorial Day for a nation corroding its moral core with endless wars.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another beautiful piece, Gerry. Though I learned that Memorial Day honors those who returned as well, remembering those who have fallen should be a reminder to consider, reconsider, and reconsider nearly interminably any war we think we should start or enter.


    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Judy. I read today that some young people have adopted the habit of saying, “Happy Memorial Day,” as an unthinking greeting. I have no words.


  6. It would be nice if we ever learned from our mistakes. In 2005, I paid to print bumper stickers saying “Support our troops; Bring them home.” This after having worked with numerous vets suffering from PTSD and physical disabilities from combat.

    A day’s remembrance (or two days, if you count Veterans’ Day) for those who died does not make up for the lifelong neglect of those who were simply maimed. These vets’ families often must bear the long-term burden of dealing with consequences, because the VA offers only token help. Even the American Psychiatric Association panders by advocating treatment for PTSD but stops short of denouncing the wars that create this most preventable mental affliction.

    I believe America could rally around a concerted move to bring troops home and put them to work repairing infrastructure and the like. Doing something useful that we can all be proud of, allowing them to live with their families. It would cost a lot less while re-building America instead of the countries we’ve ravaged.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. drgeraldstein

    I share your dismay, Katharine. As my essay suggests, without “skin in the game,” the political groundswell appears difficult to summon up, even if the average person might agree with your suggestion. I also think it may be hard to publicly discuss the value of an army of people to repair infrastructure, without being called “soft” on foreign policy and unpatriotic for “not supporting the troops.” Of course, that is not what one would be saying, but how it could be mischaracterized. The sacrifice of the troops must be honored even if the value of the mission is put into question. Thanks for your worthy comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. No the words “play ball” do not. Thank you for sharing these thoughts to help awareness.


  9. drgeraldstein

    You are welcome, Sharon. Really, the least I could do.


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