I wrote this on Memorial Day two years ago in a hung-over daze. I had been visiting friends in Washington D.C. and spent the day flying back to Alaska. The Mavi Marmara attack had just taken place, and I had only been back from deployment for less than three months. The immediacy and desperation of what I wrote really surprises me when I read it now.

Some friends really enjoyed this post, and they started sharing again. Now that I’m lucky enough to have an actual audience, I wanted to share this with you as well. Have a great Memorial Day, and try to walk that line between earnest remembrance and getting brow-beaten by overwhelming guilt.

*****

May 31, 2010.

I’ve been lucky enough to get this far, not just on this weekend (where I have managed to travel unimpeded between Alaska and Washington D.C.) and in life in general (where, despite terrible decisions on my part both inside and outside a war zone, I have emerged unscathed). Given the hours of downtime between now and my final flight to Anchorage, I wanted to write a note to reflect on Memorial Day and the things we’re remembering.

Sometime between the first time that I saw Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and the day that I first saw actual fighting in Afghanistan, I started to worry about a phenomenon in both our portrayal of war violence in entertainment as well as, later on, in real life.

There’s always a heroic story arc in war movies, even in self-consciously anti-thematic movies like “The Thin Red Line.” It’s understood that the individual whose story is told will encounter violence — it’s a war movie, right? — and friends and acquaintances tangential to the protagonist will die. You might see sweeping scenes of battlefield violence in which dozens of people are dead or dying, setting the scene that war is unfortunate, brutal and sad. Sometimes the protagonists die. Sometimes they suffer and live on. Rarely do they die at the beginning of the movie, in those expositionary scenes. The guy who gets pinged through the head running in a trench along the Atlantic seawall — who was he? The bodies floating en masse on Utah Beach — who were they? They’re not important to our story except as scene setters, as embodiments of the reality of the nature of war. Viewers are shocked but soon forget because the story goes on.

Not for them. The rest of their story is never told. And maybe we don’t have the time to depict every story of every family’s loss. Maybe that’s why the Vietnam Memorial is so popular. It just lists the names, identifies the cost in concrete terms, and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Was it worth it? I have no idea. I have only the numbers to attend to. I can do the mental arithmetic and sometimes it overwhelms me.

What I am going to say next may seem shocking, and I want to say that I mean it with all respect. I know that we fought for small victories in Afghanistan, and that friends bled for them. There was meaning. I just have to say this:

More terrifying than the pain of dying in war is the fear of dying in war for nothing. Everyone who wears a uniform has imagined what might happen to them in that fatal event. We want it to mean something, and surely it will later on, we think. The men in films I described above, the deaths that seemed to be rendered trivial, they have history on their side. Surely there is value in dying during the liberation of Europe. And surely we can’t tell a heroic epic of a story if the tragedy of every death is placed at center stage. My fallen friends died doing their jobs, doing them well, making the best of the situation, trying to help. But who knows how this story will end? Something needs to be advanced in our world to cost so much. Either that or we need to be done with this and never do this kind of thing ever again.

I don’t believe that there are heroic deaths, but I do believe that there are heroic actions. Men do their jobs and stay their posts because they have learned to confront the most brutal situations with the same frankness of strategy as every other frustrating task that the Army requires. I knew a guy, a really headstrong dude that I clashed with all the time, but who I respected. He was prior service Army and had fought in Afghanistan before he became an officer. He had his own theories on what worked and didn’t work in counterinsurgency. He got blown up one day and was fine, but had a concussion and was shaken up bad. I ate dinner with him that night, and he talked in circles as we ate KBR food in the crowded, hot dining hall. I’ve got a family, he said, I’m trying to get this done with. I should have eaten with him again. On September 4, during the recovery of yet another blown up vehicle, an insurgent fired an RPG-7 at the clean-up crew. My friend saw it coming and jumped in the way of the projectile, shielding another. The guy he knocked out of the way was unscathed, but my friend died. He saved the lives of at least three others by doing this. He was recently awarded a posthumous Silver Star for that day.

The RPG triggered an ambush; another soldier was shot and later died in Germany when his family traveled to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center so they could say goodbye before they had to pull the plug on their 20-year-old son. For disconnected citizens these were but blips on the radar of the misery that has spanned this decade. Over 600 families in Kileen, TX have lost their primary wage earner in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. The trickling numbers, the back-page news clippings, they all add up, and each one is the end of the world for a family, a neighbor, a relative or a friend. Each passing Memorial Day sees more and more of them. Soon you will see kids who were eight years old on 9/11 fighting and dying in Afghanistan. And those kids’ brigades will be on 12-month tours, and brigades will come to replace them, with younger kids still. And so on. This horrifies me.

So, this is Memorial Day. Let us remember the human cost and give respect to those who didn’t make it home. I hope that when the moment of silence ends, we start frankly discussing the war and what it means. I hope it ends sooner than later. I think it costs too much. And if that deprives the next generation of elegiac war movies where death comes unfairly and suddenly, then so be it. Knowing the alternative, I will cling to blind optimism, to stupid hopes, to bearing witness to the memory of better men than myself.

In loving memory of 2LT Darryn Andrews, Blackfoot 3-6, B/1-501, killed in action September 4th, 2009 in Palau, West Paktika, Afghanistan;

and PFC Matthew Martinek, B/1-501, died September 11th, 2009 in Landstuhl, Germany, of wounds received on September 4th, 2009 in Palau, West Paktika, Afghanistan;

and SSG Michael Murphrey, C/1-501, died September 6th, 2009, in Sharana, Afghanistan, of wounds received the same day in Da Dila Panegir, West Paktika, Afghanistan;

and SSG Kurt Curtiss, HHC 1-501, killed in action on August 26th, 2009 in Sar Hawza, West Paktika, Afghanistan;

and SSG Clayton Bowen, HHC 1-501, died on August 18th, 2009 in Sharana, Afghanistan of wounds received the same day in Dila, West Paktika, Afghanistan;

and SPC Morris Walker, HHC 1-501, killed in action on August 18th, 2009 in Dila, West Paktika, Afghanistan;

and 1LT Brian Bradshaw, C/1-501, killed in action on June 25th, 2009 in Na’im Gul Shahzada, West Paktika, Afghanistan.

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