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When you’re a kid of thirteen, as I was, it’s difficult to form a meaningful concept of sacrifice. At the time I’d have thought a week without a candy bar or a day minus TV were pretty big losses. Loss of my own life had little real weight. I’d seen uncounted cowboy versus Indian battles and a slew of WW II epics where death in battle was a brave soldier suddenly gripping his gut and falling down as if to pass into a prolonged rest. This was no more real than neighborhood wars where opposing sides gathered to happily bomb, bazook, grenade, Tommy gun, and bayonet our buddies with the sweaty glee of merciless youth. The worst injuries on our battlefields were painfully bruised knees or a wounded ego if you were the losers, with your underwear turned into war trophies.
The concept or reality of sacrifice would have been more personal and real had my father served. But even in “total war,” as was the Second, only about 10 percent of the population serves. One in ten march off to war. My father was one of the nine repeatedly deferred as essential in the defense industry. From others in the extended family who did serve, there was relative silence about what they experienced, especially their later-day feelings over the actual loss of a buddy. At the recent funeral of a WW II veteran, we were told how in his final fading days he returned to mourn over the loss of a friend killed at his side. The Mountain Troop Units suffered very high casualties in Italy, but the loss of that one friend bore special weight and pain. But it also added responsibility and determination to live, so as to validate those taken by war.
I don’t know how typical my extended family was, but if we had any heroes among us, they made an effort to keep the fact hidden. They told no stirring tales. I once heard my Uncle George talk of the mud and cold in France. There’s nothing heroic in cold and dirt. We all knew better, though I’m not sure how, than to ever ask ancient Uncle John about the WW I service that earned his U.S. citizenship. The subject was closed, as was the account of his leaving Poland in his mid-teens and never looking back. As a kid, I sensed there was great pain and trauma in Uncle John’s past. I was curious about these secrets but knew without a doubt that he’d no more reveal those things to a brat my age than he’d wear his wife’s Easter bonnet to Sunday Mass. I didn’t know a lot about that uncle other than a sure certainty he was not kid friendly or a cross-dresser. He was too dour, closed off by walls of silence he didn’t dare breach.
The form of Memorial Day we observe is less a glorification of war than an acknowledgement of service to a common ideal. If, as Uncle John once was, you were a Slavic peasant, you served because you were ordered to and would be killed if you refused. The officers were all noble and upper class. They had traditions of chivalry, etc. to admire. The peasants were there for the dirty work and to die in as many numbers as needed. Those wars defended social orders.
It is a more recent development that we honor service in the cause of general freedoms and human liberty. The distinction is important even today because so many groups today use “freedom” of one sort or another as their modern-day disguise for fostering a rigid and non-free social order. Many of today’s freedom fighters have a goal not of freedom but of enslaving others in a rigid code from their part of the world that they think will fit all. Those groups regard us as nobility once considered Slavic peasants. The peasants either had to agree and go along or suffer the fatal consequence. The correct name for that baloney is Phoney Freedom Fighting.
Free people, of course, aren’t especially eager for costly conflicts or sending off numbers of their young to uncertain fates. But given the seriousness of intent on the part of those who favor the enslaving route, we are forced to reckon with putting up some defensive response. If an opposing force doesn’t present a military battle line, then your tactic to repel it won’t be benefitted by a battleship or scores of heavy tanks. If you consider the enormous security costs we’ve carried since 9/11, you could justly consider that impact equivalent to the burden of total war. In a culture or ideology war, the costs can be as great as those of military war, with consequences greater yet if we prove lax in defense of true civil liberties and are not tricked into bolstering tyranny in the hope it will go away or eventually soften. History shows what tyranny does to freedom, just as history demonstrates that tyranny does not share power with people.
As a kid of thirteen, I stood fidgety in line with other Scouts from Hoyt Lakes in solemn observance of the sacrifices of others. Did I know what that really meant? I did not. I was doing well by simply forming part of a decent-looking line following the Colors. In later youth, was I sometimes critical of my government? I was. Viet Nam did not seem a good “cause” for war to me, so I exercised the right to object. As some pointed out to me with vigor, that right was paid for by sacrifice—a fact, it seemed to me, giving all the more value to its use by me. That’s how freedom works. Freedom and liberty leave us free to dissent. When beliefs require official respect backed by enforcement, we then have a form of tyranny.
Some will try to blur those lines with every cunning argument and ploy their creed can muster. They make tyranny look reasonable. I’d not have understood that in a Memorial service at age thirteen, but I do now. We all need to honor the service of heroes by keeping the fruits of their sacrifice alive among us.