But this year's Memorial weekend also follows closely the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. If you know me, you know I've spent too much of my own free time studying the history of this conflict and the individuals and nations that started, endured, perished, and prevailed and within it. As an American, I am in shameless awe of the experience of ordinary men and women from our country who served — a few were direct relatives of mine, others family friends, but most are just names on pages or chiseled on simple marble crosses that cover a bluff overlooking the English Channel.
My father and I visited the beaches of Normandy in Autumn of 2000. We trekked from London, then across the Channel through northern France and Belgium, and then western and southern Germany, seeing virtually no physical evidence in modern Europe of this great conflict outside of some neoclassical monuments, quiet cemetaries, and esoterically assembled museums. But the fact that Europe and much of the wider world thrives as it does today is probably the greatest testament to the sacrifices millions made to restore order to a world spun impossibly off its axis by fascism and failed politics.
We made this admittedly nostalgic tour just as the Palestinian intifada flared up and less than a year before September 11. We were ignorant to the clues that the new century would be so conflict-wracked at home and especially abroad. In fact, it wasn't a stretch for us then to think of the American soldier as fascinating historical actor, far removed from present-day combatant under fire. That view was as comforting as it was fleeting and false. If you trust the interpretations of Steven Spielberg, Joseph Vilsmaier, and Terrence Malick, combat is sanity-shearing, random, unsentimental slaughter. The only thing that matters to any soldier in those moments is the buddy right next to him. Thoughts of king and country, flags and fathers, and other patriotic notions are strictly for the novelists and recruiting posters.
Regardless of your passions around current American foreign policy and historical triumphs and blunders, I hope you can take a few moments today and think about how difficult it must be to serve your country but not enjoy its relative safety, everyday pleasures and simplest beauties. The ultimate sacrifice is still to give your own life, but there are a hundred thousand smaller sacrifices every minute of every day that only merit individual remembrance and regret. It's the activated reservist in Mosul who's watching his twins crawl for the first time via webcam. It's the father in Wyoming whose morning inbox is empty two days in a row for the first time since his son's unit returned to Ramadi. It's the medevac pilot in Bagram who longs to drive her kid sister for ice cream. All of these people deserve a moment of your consideration today. Maybe tomorrow, as well.