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Memorial Day: Valor, Memory, Memorialization

Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Oregon
Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Oregon
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

Memorial Day has its roots in some of the first memorials conducted during and shortly after the Civil War-the War Between the States. From 1862-1863, women from Savannah, Georgia decorated the graves of Confederate Soldiers. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, a cemetery was dedicated with a memorial for fallen soldiers. On May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, over 10,000 people gathered at a memorial organized by African-American former slaves, teachers, and missionaries. Those who gathered helped clean up and landscape the cemetery, and laid flowers on the graves of those who had fallen in battle. Later this was to be called the first Decoration Day. Memorial Day is a time when we consider the meaning of valor, memory, and memorialization. How do we weave these concepts into the time we pay tribute to and honor those who have sacrificed for the sake of country?

A speech given on May 30, 1884 by Justice, Oliver Wendall Holmes, a thrice-wounded war veteran of the Civil War.

“Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good a nd evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs has some interesting information on some of the history of this holiday. Though the history of Memorial Day may be interesting, this article is focused on the qualities we honor of those men and women who have sacrificed their lives to fight in wars. Whether we are proponents of war as a tool for solving problems or not, we cannot let this day pass without considering what it takes to go to war, survive, and live with the memories, scars, and lessons of those experiences. This article is about valor and the qualities required to meet the challenges and trauma of war.

Valor, defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is that strength of mind and spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness. The Prophet Mohammed said of what it takes to support the world through our service: “Four things support the world: the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the good, and the valor of the brave”. Synonymous with courage and bravery, valor is found within each of our hearts, though often we are not tested to see what strength we might have. We often think of bravery as dressed up in formal uniform, or parading in full dress uniforms to the rousing sounds of a marching band. Valor, however, is born in times that are not as presentable, safe, or sanitized. Valor is born out of men and women going into harm’s way, willingly or not, but going and facing what must be faced.

Lives of Valor are often remembered and memorialized in ways that take us far from the sacrifices, brokenness, and tragedy that war brings. Wars are fought for many reasons—some necessary, others not. However, when a young person is called upon to serve country, to protect one’s homeland, fight for the cause of peace, or go to the defense of the helpless, they go. At some times in our history, soldiers had no choice—they had to go into service. At other times, like the present, joining the military has been a choice, and still young men and women join and go in hopes, perhaps, of making the world a better place.

Valor lives in the hearts of every human, yet is tested most in the young who go to war. Without knowing what awaits them, they learn, prepare, practice, and deal with their own fears and hopes as they enter into the missions that they embark on. For no matter what the outcome of one’s experience in war, lives are marked and forever changed in ways no one but another survivor can understand. Joseph Campbell, in talking about the hero and the hero’s journey, described those who live lives of valor as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” It also includes, those who have given up the life unmarked by war, that survivors of war live with for the rest of their lives. War changes everyone.

The late, great tennis champion, Arthur Ashe once remarked:

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

Mark Twain, who knew something about confronting danger first hand, said of courage:

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear”

A soldier goes to war with a healthy dose of fear to master the unknown, unexpected, as each one confronts the depths and breadth of their own being. All ideals, beliefs, and one’s faith are challenged and called into play when faced with the unknowns of war. What we ask and expect of those who serve our country in times of war, is one of the greatest tests any human is ever asked to face. To die in battle we say is an honor. To survive is a matter of fortune, however both those who die in battle or live to carry on, carry the weight of challenges most of us will never be asked to meet.

Memorial Day is about memory and memorializing those who have been lost to war. Memory, as author Barbara Kingsolver notes, “…is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” We all know that our memory is subject to interpretation, and what we choose to remember and pass on in how we tell our stories and the stories of those who have come before us, is also part of how we come to memorialize the past. While the wars that our country has fought over the past 200 years or more have created our history, we still hold onto the hope that this war that we are presently engaged in, will be the last. That hope lives from one generation to the next, and is often used as the rationale for entering yet another war.

Over the last few days, and culminating today, we go to the grave sites and clear off the graves and lay flowers. We sit for awhile lost in our memories of those we love who have gone to war and not returned, or who went to war and brought part of that experience back with them. We have our memories, and for some, those are the narratives of our loved ones who talked to us about what the war was like. We also have our firsthand experiences of what war brought home. We know of the night terrors and the need to numb the painful memories. We understand the strong reactions or the silent brooding that mark the survivors, and we remember. Our memories include the stories we’ve heard of Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Guadalcanal, of D-Day and the camps with piles of rotted and emaciated bodies. We hear of liberation, and finding shelter in the open air and in the shade of the forests.

We remember the Blue Stars in windows, connoting a soldier missing or not returning. We remember the MIA/POW, and the first signs of reconciliation. We remember stories of the the times of imprisonment, torture, and depravity. We remember the internment camps, the intolerance, and the fervor of hate that fueled the birth of more hate. We remember the lives cut short or irreparably damaged. We remember that we are part of what makes war a part of who we are, and we have to remember those who suffered most, are those who put their lives on the line for something they believed was necessary and right.

Let us remember those who gave their lives in hopes of making the world a better, safer place. And like all other humans, our memories are if nothing else, selective. We don’t remember all, and we tend to block out much. As writer Marcel Proust said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Whatever it is that we remember and then make a permanent marker of our collective and individual memory, says much about who we are, what we honor and respect, and who we revere as heroes.

For myself, I will continue to honor those who served with valor for they hold the promise and the desire that burns within our hearts that one day we will have the peace we seek. We create peace through our thoughts, words, deeds, and visions. We honor those who stand up for what is right and who stand between danger and those who are threatened. We honor those who fight for liberty, and for those who exercise liberty responsibly. Today is for memorializing those who have died and served for causes that were bigger than their own personal happiness or desires. We drink a cup of blessings in their honor and memory, and than all who served with valor in their hearts.

And as we remember let us also hope that Albert Einstein’s vision might some day be a memory we can recall:

“We must be prepared to make heroic sacrifices for the cause of peace that we make ungrudgingly for the cause of war. There is no task that is more important or closer to my heart.”

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