Memorial Day is just not my favorite holiday. (I’m not sure there is one I really like, but that aside.) Sale circulars arrive by snail and e-mail, beer is bought in truckloads, cars take off for the beach, and people stage obnoxious parties, like the one that ended around 1 a.m. this Sunday with my calling the cops over the matter of two returning corybants down my street engaging in an outbreak of obscenity-laced partner violence on my neighbors’ lawn.
Then people make some very solemn speeches about how our military keep us free, and the phrase “ultimate sacrifice” is used a lot. People choke up, feel noble, and go home.
Wilfrid Owen, who was a British officer in the First World War and a poet, didn’t come home. He had this to say about it:
Dulce et Decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs, And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas-shells dropping softly behind. Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.— Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams before my helpless sight He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin, If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs Bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
Owen was not a conscientious objector nor a draft-dodger. He was invalided home in 1917, and returned to the front “in order to help these boys; directly, by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.” He died leading his men across the Sambre Canal a few days before the Armistice.
In the Great War it was gas and shell-shock. These days it’s IED’s and brain damage: there’s always a weapon that no one is prepared for and a generation that has to deal with it, and no one wants to hear about the aftereffects.
I really don’t think all the little flags help much with this, do you?