(LifeSiteNews) –– Editor’s note: Matthew Bosnick served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in Marjah and Sangin, Afghanistan. He is a Lay Dominican and works as a firefighter. He and his wife have three children and live in Monroe, North Carolina.
One of the most striking memories I have from Afghanistan is from a memorial service for a Marine killed in combat. A helmet-topped rifle – hung with dog tags and standing inverted between a pair of combat boots – represents the 19-year-old rifleman killed several days before. Members of his platoon stand at attention while final roll is called.
The company first sergeant calls out several names, each Marine loudly answering, “Present!”
Then, the first sergeant calls the fallen Marine’s name three times: each time successively louder, each time receiving no answer. After the final call, the first sergeant commands, “Honor the dead.” A bell is rung one time, Taps is played, and the Marines salute.
The most profound part of this is the final command: Honor the dead. This Memorial Day, we Americans should ask ourselves, how do I honor the dead?
Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan a few years ago, there is now a widespread outlook of cynicism towards American defense policy. The war in Afghanistan was the longest war in American history and though only 2,402 American servicemen died there, the Taliban’s return to power makes the war seem like a loss to many.
Cynicism and bitterness lead to thinking that the men who died did so for nothing, that their lives were wasted.
In contrast to this, overly sentimental – though well-intentioned – displays of military appreciation are common. It has become cliche to speak of the “military community” in the same manner as other groups deserving of special days of recognition throughout the year. Military discounts, preferred parking, and other benefits are offered to veterans in gratitude for our service. I can only speak for myself, but I must say that while these gestures are appreciated, today should be totally dedicated to the dead.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought by an all-volunteer military made up of men and women who wanted to serve. There was a feeling of unity and patriotism after 9/11, and a seemingly unanimous understanding that a war against al Qaeda was necessary to keep Americans safe here and overseas.
Many joined the military with the purpose of taking part in that war. The downside to this all-volunteer military, and the relatively small size of the war itself, meant that the brunt of the fighting was done by very few citizens. The war did not affect most people.
This is not intended to make anyone feel guilty or to increase animosity towards civilians. I do not know a single infantryman who was forced to sign up and go to war; in fact, we all enlisted wanting to do so. We understood the risk and few of us regret our service. The problem, however, is that these small wars and the men who died in them can easily be forgotten as time goes on. While the benefit of the war was meant to be shared by the whole country, the cost was not. It is only just that some measure of honor and gratitude be paid to the people who died in our country’s service.
Cynicism and sentimentality can be avoided when the dead are properly honored. Our faith gives us a few ways we can do this. We should pray for the dead, hoping they are given eternal rest. We should pray for their families, knowing that by doing so we can “bear one another’s burdens” in a small but meaningful way.
Consider visiting a cemetery today and praying for the war dead buried there. If you do not know anyone who died in war, visiting a cemetery will allow you to see its real cost and will deepen the gratitude you have for those who died. Say a prayer for the dead during the national moment of silence at three o’clock this afternoon. This is a fitting way to solemnize Memorial Day.
St Thomas Aquinas defines honor as “witnessing to a person’s excellence.” The excellence of those who died in war lies in their bravery, discipline, and selflessness – virtues that should be admired and emulated. Valor award citations are a good resource for learning about the men who exemplified these virtues.
Another way to learn about the fallen and their virtues is from the stories of veterans themselves. Some veterans guard against telling personal combat stories, but others are apt to open up if the person with whom they are speaking has a genuine interest in where they fought and what they did. Most will not hesitate to talk about friends who have died, because that is essentially how we honor them, by keeping their memory alive and talking about them.
Honor the dead by learning about the battles in which they fought. When I was in high school, a teacher who was a Vietnam War veteran showed us combat footage of the Battle of Hue City, where he fought as a young Marine. He showed us the footage to educate us on a war most students knew only from textbooks. Occasions like that help humanize the sometimes abstract ideas given for why and how our wars are fought, and why we fought in them. One does not need to agree with these wars to understand and honor the people who fought and died in them.
Seeing American citizens killed on 9/11 was what influenced many of my peers to join the military. We admired the bravery of firemen walking into the World Trade Center and the boldness of the men who fought hijackers on Flight 93. Patriotism was a motivating virtue in the beginning, but once we experienced combat and patrolled Afghan and Iraqi streets, fields, and mountains day in and day out, the principal reason for which we fought was for each other.
The dead we remember today should be honored for this. They fought and died because they loved their country and because they loved their brothers. Learn from their virtues and do not forget them.