ORANGE COUNTY VOICES MEMORIAL DAY : Happily, Today’s Youth Have Little to Remember--Yet
The following is a letter written by Jack Mann to his daughters. Memorial Day is that holiday that began in 1866 as a celebration and remembrance of the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought in the American Civil War. Over the years, it has included the fallen and the living combatants of too many more wars, but always the intent was the same: a moment to mark the deeds of men and women who performed their duty when called upon by their country without regard to politics, policies or voice in the matter of their destinies.
In today’s world, the Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer. Only the Old Warriors like your dad have anything to remember, anything to remark to commemorate this day. Vietnam is now a generation in the past, and since I came home on my two feet instead of in a body bag, you, too, will let this day pass in celebration of things far less somber than the remembrance of war. And that is good.
With great luck, your generation will know nothing of the agony of war, with all its grief, suffering and ultimate, futile losses to all sides. But just in case man continues to act like man, and should you have sons of your own, remember this: In nearly every generation, American sons have bought and paid for your great privilege of freedoms, including the one now exercised to forget all about the original meaning of a three-day weekend and suck down suds on the beach instead.
Shield your sons from war if you can, but never forget that your father is here because his father went to war and you are here because I went to war. No, neither your grandfather nor I made America safe by ourselves; but we were part of the process that allowed America to show its will to survive.
World War II was politically justified, having been started by three aggressor nations without justification. Vietnam was not, except to the extent that one remembers that, at the time, our national posture was that communism was monolithic and we held the domino theory to be valid (i.e., if one Southeast Asian nation fell to communism, the rest would fall like dominoes). Nonetheless, both conflicts served notice that America was mighty of sword and not without the political courage to take up that sword both in defense of its shores and its national policies.
I would also advise you to learn to hate war, but it is a parental commandment you cannot follow, for it is but an abstraction to you, and no doubt a badly warped one at that. Nevertheless, you have the built-in female aversion to anything as stupid and foolish as war, so my concern for you and your sister is less than it would be if I were the father of sons. Still, I fear for the lives of your children more because of the war in the streets of America than because of defeat on some future military battlefield.
More combat-age youngsters are dying from drugs and gang warfare in America in a year than all the casualties of our 10-year-long involvement in Vietnam. At its worst, American deaths in that field of clashing armies and ideologies could not have been with less purpose than an 18-year-old being shot down in his front yard at home by a passing maniac with an AK-47 in today’s America.
In truth, a Memorial Day would not be necessary in a world where man’s civilized and intellectual progress matched his cleverness in producing in a single generation the means with which to wipe his kind and every living species off the face of the earth. Despite progress in all other areas of human affairs, man seems doomed to the simple fact that he is not born with the full knowledge of all those who have lived before, but rather is forced by the very nature of life itself to learn anew the lessons of survival and then, hopefully, wisdom.
The accident of birth as to geography, living conditions and the opportunity to thrive makes it obvious that the child of a starving Biafran mother and one of a Newport Beach matron are not going to live identical lives on Earth. Yet, the African child can grow to be a man of integrity and honor, while the Golden Boy of Newport Beach may turn out to be cruel, greedy and stupid. It is the unpredictability of people everywhere that makes life without war a cherished dream of the rational instead of a fait accompli .
Memorial Day is to me, then, a means to honor the bravery and sacrifices of individual Americans called upon by their not-always-right government to go forth and serve their nation. This bypasses the long and ultimately senseless arguments about the issues of humanity that cannot be solved with protest marches; insurrections; clashes of hawks and doves, workers and intellectuals; and all the other manifestations of man’s clearly demonstrated inability to agree en masse about almost anything.
The best thing that could happen to Memorial Day is that it slide off the calendar into the dustbin of history where lie other special days of celebration now long forgotten by people who no longer need to remember. If we can do this and not lose America in the process, I hope that it happens in your lifetime.
You and your sister filled my thoughts for an indescribably long journey through a dark and terrible land. The light at the end of the tunnel for me was the opportunity to return home to my family. I remain grateful for that privilege, and so it is that Memorial Day will always be a reminder that not everyone who served with me shares this privilege. I came home with my shield, not on it.