Though there are many customary ways to observe Memorial Day, I’ve often struggled to figure out a way to do justice to the holiday. But this weekend I had an experience that gave me some guidance. I went to my 20th college reunion. And as I guess is often the case the celebrants of the 25th reunion were given pride of place in the alumni parade. They processed with all the mix of hijinks, nostalgia and loud university memorabilia you’d imagine. But what fixed my attention were the placards with the faces of their classmates who died before reaching their 25th — university face book photos, black and white and grainy, frozen in time late in their teenage years. Dead but remembered.I have to confess that it was sobering for me just how many of them there were, as these folks are only in their late 40s and only five years ahead of me.
But as I pushed these self-focused thoughts aside, I thought more of the solidarity. The need to be remembered. The need to keep faith with those who have died before us, to keep faith and uphold a tradition that will have us remembered as well. Solidarity across the transom of death is a profound thing.
Memorial Day is a very different thing because it honors not the death that awaits all of us but the military dead, people who gave their own lives for a bond with a couple hundred million people they never knew. But for me solidarity with the dead is a window into it.
Militaries focus so much on morale and unit cohesion because it’s well known that in the clutch moments it’s devotion and loyalty to fellow soldiers, the ones right there with you, that gives people the courage to risk death, even certain death. But the whole enterprise is in service of a country, a bond with people imagined but unknown and vast numbers yet to be born.
No one death saves a country. But an army’s collective willingness to risk death does. And in this sense every military death must be equal. Some deaths may be more tactically significant or glorious in the retelling or maybe saving of more lives. But each must fundamentally be equal. Because what do we say to the 19 year old in Vietnam who stepped on a land mine to no particular consequence in 1967 when he says to us “I lost my whole life in our common national enterprise. Who will speak for me? Who will remember what I did?” How do we keep that faith, make something more of it than the lost hope? Or the same in Iraq? Or the submariner drowned in World War II, like my great uncle Nathan Rosenberg, drowned in the engine room of a doomed sub in the eastern Mediterranean. Even in wars some of us may believe were mistaken?
Battlefield deaths are usually quick and always awful, and in some ways pointless. But all of these dead rely on our memory to credit their sacrifice. Solidarity across the transom of death, anonymity and time.