(Author’s Note: I use “soldier” for Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, male and female, Active, Guard and Reserve.)
Memorial Day is just up ahead, and if you’re in the military now or are a veteran, you can expect more than the usual “Thank you for your service” appreciations from friends and strangers alike who have never served.
I’ll be responding with my usual snarky “Don’t thank me, I didn’t die.”
And I mean it; I don’t want to be thanked. Memorial Day is for those who died in their service, and none of them wanted to die or would have chosen to die, and most could have found some loophole or excuse not to serve, let alone serve close to flying bullets and shrapnel. National draft or no draft, there’s always a way out, and even in the draft of a big war most adult males never serve. Even serving during a war, most do not come close enough to day-to-day combat to be unlucky to die.
For example, in World War II more than 16 million Americans were in uniform, and 400,000 died—or, 2.5%. (With another 670,000 wounded.)
In our wars since, far fewer served and an increasingly far smaller percentage died. Which is good. And it shouldn’t lessen the importance of those who did sacrifice all, and it should not lessen our appreciation.
But don’t thank me. To me, who was there, your thanks take away from the soldier next to me, shoulder-to-shoulder, who took the bullet to the neck; and my buddies in the truck in front of mine which took the RPGs or the truck behind that ran over the IED.
Thank them, not me; they were unlucky. They were like me in that they chose to be there, and they offered up no more than I did, but they were the ones who had everything taken away—memorialize them. They were like me, no more brave and heroic than the next Joe, and they knew or very quickly learned that the greatest determinant of their fate would be nothing more than luck, good or bad.
Theirs was bad, and it is they who we memorialize.
If you want to thank the living, thank a wounded soldier, serving, or veteran. Theirs too was bad luck. Or seek out a Gold Star spouse or parent or child, for their loss is felt daily.
And what do you want to bet, most of the living whom you thank will be humble and will shrug it off and will feel in their hearts that others deserve far more thanks. There is a good chance that most will sense that the thanks is offered more for the benefit of the one doing the thanking than for the soldier. That the one saying thanks feels good and noble about himself in the thanking, almost as if giving thanks verbally in-person puts him in brotherhood with the soldier.
The thanks are like a painless penance. I take an 18th-century man of letters, Samuel Johnson, to heart in his caveat, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” Think about it, there’s manhood and honor in being a warrior, and, with only 1.5 million of our 310 million Americans in the military, the rest, coasting in easy freedom and comfortable with full bellies, feel mildly guilty for having avoided what is etched in the DNA of all of us as man’s duty to defend the tribe against physical threats.
Thus the “Thank you for your service” so often and casually offered.
Call me cynical perhaps, but I don’t want that thanks, not on Memorial Day and not the other 364 days of the year. I wasn’t drafted, I wasn’t enslaved, I chose the military, and I was paid well for my “service.”And in retirement, I’m still being paid. And it’s not from the booty of those we’ve conquered; the pay is from you, all of you, American taxpayers. The pay is the thanks.
And that is thanks enough for me. Then and now.
Because, ultimately, I’ve been lucky, I’m still here. And it’s enough for me spiritually, as it should be for my fellow soldiers and vets, that I don’t feel meanly about myself and can sincerely feel appreciation for those who, same as I, were there but who did not make it back to live with this pride.
That can’t be bought, the pride. Not with money and not with casual, tossed-off thanks. It comes with “having been a soldier” or “having been at sea.”
Memorial Day is our collective remembrance and tribute to those soldiers who never came home from soldiering or the sea . . . . in the most honorable of deeds, defending our tribe.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on May 23, 2015.
Paul spent three-plus years in Afghanistan as a Green Beret then an embedded civilian journalist. His unapologetically politically incorrect novel of the Afghan War, Tattoo Zoo, was published in December.