I guarantee that this week, the week of Veteran’s Day, someone someplace will say, “We celebrate the sacrifice made by the hero in uniform.”
This is an essay about language, especially the words celebrate, sacrifice and hero. Ironically, the very terms Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are confused. Veteran’s Day is for all those who served in the uniformed services. Memorial Day is for those who died. It is just as well that we confuse these terms. It reminds us of how few people actually serve, how these two days have more to do with barbecues than actual heroes.
No official word is adequate to describe war, and certainly not the word celebrate. I am at a loss to understand what there is to celebrate in a war. Except for the soldiers and their families, nobody today sacrifices. There’s no war tax, no rationing. As for hero, the word is so overused as to be meaningless. I recently heard a local TV channel use hero to describe someone who rescues puppies.
Nobody will celebrate that Stan, a veteran of the Air Force, dropped out of university because of the pain in his right foot, which had been crushed when a missile dropped on it. Stan didn’t sacrifice for his country. The accident, according to Stan, was meaningless. A winch broke, and front half of his foot was smashed.
Nor will anyone remember what Cal sacrificed. Cal was Bob’s dad. Cal died of a broken heart as sure as his son died of a gunshot in The Nam. Bob had his head blown off, because a rifle misfired in what the army termed a “misadventure”. His father did not celebrate.
Mark, from the south side of Chicago, was smart, quiet, unpretentious. We shared a barracks in Basic Training. His name is on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. No one calls him hero. He was drafted. He didn’t win any medals. Mark didn’t sacrifice his life: his life was torn from him.
There was a fellow I once walked past in Vietnam. He was on guard duty. I passed close enough to chat for a second. He died that night. He was killed while guarding the Finance Company of the 4th Infantry Division. You don’t think of accountants dying in a war. Yet die he did. I didn’t know him. But I remember him. He wasn’t a hero. I heard later that he fell asleep on guard duty. There is nothing to celebrate, though there is much to mourn.
Perhaps, because I am a war veteran, I have more to remember than most. That said, I will not remember the war dead, or my brother and sister veterans, any more this week than I remember them any other week. Besides, the act of remembering is a solitary thing. It doesn’t do the remembered any good or ill. But the words, by which we record the memory, the words matter. Sacrifice is too sacred a word. As for celebrate, there’s nothing to celebrate. It’s war. Heroes, yes, there are, in fact, heroes. But mostly there are just sad, scared, lonely young men and women, the heroes included. Perhaps the only word that really matters any more is remember.
So let me say a few last words, one last memory.
I left Vietnam in December of 1970. I used my G. I. Bill to go to Southern Methodist University. In my senior year, 1975, the North Vietnamese invaded the South. My old base camp, An Khe, fell without a fight. I remember the very night I heard the news.
I thought of Williams Bridge. Williams Bridge spanned a small river in An Khe. Specialist 4th Class Eric Williams died while building that bridge. I never met him. He died four years before my tour of duty. He was not a hero. He did not sacrifice his life. He drowned in an accident.
As I watched the news that night in 1975, I thought about the death of Specialist Williams. Somewhere, in all that grief, were all the deaths, Americans, Vietnamese, the French and all the rest. But I fixed on The Sp. 4 Eric Williams Bridge. And I wept bitterly. Because it was all in vain. There was nothing to celebrate.
The next day was an ordinary weekday. I just went to class. I remember listening to a lecture in Dallas Hall at SMU. And knowing that, of all my classmates, my teachers, friends, people I liked, people I loved, of all those folks, I alone wept for Eric Williams.