Memorial Day is a great day to reflect on history. Whether it was started by former slaves in Charleston, SC honoring a mass grave of Union soldiers in 1865 (ref 1, ref 2) or Southerners in other cities (ref 3) celebrating the sacrifices of loss Civil War soldiers a year later, we now have a tradition deeply embedded in our culture. Going back to the founding of the US, well over 1 million U.S. servicemen and servicewomen have died fighting wars. And, not to be overlooked, millions of others, many from foreign lands, have died or have sustained significant injuries, physical and mental, as a result of these conflicts.
Both my grandfathers fought in the “Great” wars of the 20th Century, Joseph (in WW I) and Max (in WW II). While Grandpa Joseph sadly passed when I was just a toddler, Grandpa Max and I got to spend ~30 years getting to know each other. Grandpa Max taught me many things, but probably the two most important were: (a) everyone matters and is worth your attention; and, (b) when something is important enough, you must be willing to sacrifice everything to obtain it (in 1945 that was freedom from fascism; he volunteered to serve, and, as a result, fought in France against the Nazis). Despite risking so much and contributing to the “Victory,” Grandpa Max was no fan of war. He openly protested against all other U.S. wars, which he thought were illegitimate on moral grounds (he deemed them imperialistic enterprises). He was a working man, whether it be in the Bowery of New York City, as a diamond setter, or a social worker with schizophrenics later in life. He never made much money but he quietly saved thousands, which he generously gave his five grandchildren at his passing. He was modest and definitely a bit cantankerous (what older men aren’t). I don’t know for sure, but I think his battlefield experiences connected him with humanity in a way few of us ever do. His two sons drew from these lessons as well–both have dedicated their lives to the betterment of humanity.
We definitely have a lot to learn from our soldiers and the experiences they have had; I wish I had had more opportunities to learn from Grandpa Joseph. But given that face-to-face combat is becoming less common (at least among U.S. soldiers) as drones and airstrikes become more popular (both further dehumanizing combat), we must be vigilant not to let war become something that we participate in casually or without exhausting all diplomatic options first. I am sure Grandpa Max and Grandpa Joseph would agree with this.