My mother’s older brother was in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed. “I was running along Battleship Row while they [the Japanese] were sinking them,” he wrote in a one-page account I found in my mother’s papers after she died. When the attack started, Uncle Eddie had been sent to shore in a motor launch to fetch the officers for his ship; he had to swim for his life when shrapnel blew a hole in the bow of the launch.
My father, like many young men his age, felt the call to serve and joined the Navy in early 1942. He, two of his brothers, and my mother’s two brothers all served during the war. One fought his way across Europe with the infantry. One was a bombardier over Europe. One served with an Allied force in Russia. My father was accepted in Officers Candidate School and was commissioned an ensign on the day I was born. There is some strange irony, I suppose, in the fact that he saw less combat action than the others, then was killed in a car accident only a few months after coming home to civilian life when the war ended.
I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s with a stron
g sense of gratitude for what they had sacrificed to make the world safer for my generation.
I knew veterans who served in Korea. I had friends who fought, and in two cases died, in Vietnam. I know others who have fought in wars since then. Many of them don’t get the respect they deserve for their willingness to sacrifice in defense of liberty—their own and that of others. Many who came home from Vietnam were treated cruelly and shamefully by people who should have celebrated their safe return.
Let it be clear that I am not saying we should celebrate war, in victory or loss. War is a terrible failure of the human spirit on the grandest scale. It is a great evil that ought to be eliminated. It is often brought on by evil in the arrogant, grasping hearts of those who crave power. Wars may be justified at times by patriots, but the combat is frequently mismanaged and manipulated by misguided politicians who ought to bear at least some of the blame for the waste of lives. While others may disagree, I have come to see the war we fought in Vietnam in that light.
But I have deep respect for the veterans who fought it. They served no matter their feelings about the conflict and its causes. Like my father and his generation, they were willing to put everything on the line when their country needed them. Those who have served in the Middle East and Afghanistan have seen their duty clear even when the cause might have been murky.
Let us honor them—all of them—equally for their courage and sacrifice. It does not matter in which conflict they gave “the last full measure of devotion,” to quote Mr. Lincoln at Gettysburg. Whether they laid down their lives on the battlefield or came home to continue contributing in civilian life, we owe them our thanks and respect. No one should question their devotion to freedom. They stepped up when they were called. For that alone, we owe them thanks.
That is what I will be thinking about this Memorial Day.