Today is Memorial Day in the US, a federal holiday to commemorate our military dead…specifically, those who died in service. Across the nation there are public parades and speeches as well as countless personal remembrances for loved ones lost. Despite how I might feel about the validity of any particular war, I would never dispute the sacrifices that have been made by tens of thousands of military members and their families. Formal state remembrances of the supreme sacrifice of military members are not unique to the modern world – unfortunately, humankind has a long, long history of warfare. Perhaps one of the most famously recorded episodes of commemoration of the fallen comes from The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. In Pericles‘ Funeral Oration, to the Athenians who had died in the initial battles of the war, Thucydides shows the Athenian leader lifting up the state as much as the deceased, and in many ways, that seems to be the function of all such ceremonies…to remind us why we ask such a sacrifice. As I read through it today, I was struck by a passage which spoke specifically to me about honoring the individual, separate from the state.
I know that Memorial Day is separate from Veterans Day – where we in the US honor all who have served, but I tend to think that they are pieces of the same puzzle, and in that I remember all of the members of my own family, my Dad and my uncles and great uncles who served in wartime, my cousins who served in peace time. I remember my students who served only recently, some of them seeking education now in times between deployments. I especially remember my friend Rick, who was so damaged by what he had seen and been required to do in Iraq that he couldn’t come to grips with it and took his own life, leaving behind two young sons who had never really known their father because of his service to the state. Even though these people and thousands like them did not perish in service, their lives, and those of their families have been forever altered by it and they deserve to be recognized as often as possible – somehow I don’t think their departed comrades would mind.