Memorial Day has always been just the marker of the beginning of summer for me. I suspect most people feel that way. But now, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, I have more respect and a lot more reverence for this holiday to remember that war leaves scars on land and people.
I suppose it’s like most things – you’ve got to be close to it to understand it, and our generation has not had to deal with war like our parents and grandparents. My family didn’t lose anyone in Viet Nam or Korea, but we lost my grandfather to World War II. Here’s the story about that and what this day means to me.
My mother’s father was killed in France in the Battle of the Bulge. By that late in the war (1945), they were drafting older men, even those with families who depended on them. My grandfather was 25 years old, with a wife and 2 kids when he was drafted. It was known that new draftees didn’t last long in the brutal fighting at the end of WWII, with the average time being just a few months before they were wounded or killed.
Dwight E. Harvey was in the 14th Armored Division, 62nd Armored Infantry Battalion. There are no records of his unit in any WWII historical site because the unit was completely decimated (we infer this, due to lack of information). We have basic information, but his specific information and that of millions of other veterans was lost in the National Archives and Records Administration fire of 1973. His date of death is listed as March 23 1945, but it’s assumed that he actually died in the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945 in the Rhine region of Germany. My grandmother did not receive any personal effects and no body was every recovered. My mother never knew her father (she was only 3 when he was killed) and neither did my uncle. He was just gone.
I’m one of only 2 people in my family (my uncle is the other) that has seen my grandfather’s marker in the American Military Cemetery in Lorraine (St. Avold), France. It was very moving to stand in that place, with thousands of markers all around. It really brought home the meaning of WAR and the loss of life involved in such violence. As I stood there on that summer day, under the blue French sky, I realized that each and every marker represented a life. Fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and probably a few women, too. Those markers that stretched as far as the eye could see were people just like my grandfather – most of them even younger. It literally brought me to my knees. I knelt there, with tears coursing down my face and my breath caught in my throat, feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. Then I realized that this was one of many WWII cemeteries (the largest for those lost in Europe) and these were only a portion of the people lost to the folly of war…
As my sobs subsided, and I regained control, I begged the gods and goddesses of our Universe to have mercy on all the souls lost and to give guidance to the rest of us poor, ignorant humans so that we may avoid this massive loss of life in the future. So that we may save ourselves from ourselves.
My experience in St. Avold, France gave me a much deeper respect for the seriousness of war and the real costs to us as a species. I kept asking myself, “Why?”. Why did all these kids have to die horrible deaths in the cold, in the water, in the foxholes and airplanes? Why do we humans refuse to change our ways? Why, why, why…
Then, years later, came a morning with crisp video coverage of the attacks in New York and DC and we all got a taste of what it must have been like for the people in Europe during WWII. Now we know what it’s like to watch our monuments burn and feel totally powerless to stop it. Is it enough to keep us from another World War? I doubt it. If we go at it again (and we will, we’re just that stupid) there’ll be nothing left to fight over. And when we’ve decimated our planet, then what will we stupid humans do?
Most likely, we’ll fight about whose fault it was.
Is that really the way we want to be? Can’t we rise above it?
We, as a race, need to decide to STOP being petty, selfish and short sighted and put our species and our world first. That is our challenge and that is our duty.