One of the most controversial topics I write about is support for members of our military and patriotism. Regardless, as this Memorial Day approaches here in the US, I’ve been thinking about what it means to me personally.
I do ancestor work. One of the most profound ways I honor my ancestors is by researching their history, discovering their names, dates and origins. When I began this work I expected to find a large influx of Irish immigrants about the time of the Civil War, but so far I haven’t found a single immigration earlier that the lat 1700’s, and quite a few from the 1600’s. I didn’t expect that. I had hoped for shallower roots in this country, because it seemed somehow more exciting than the tedious work of untangling family tree branches for centuries. But now I am in the 1600’s, and finishing up the 1700’s, and I’m amazed at all I have found.
You would think that going back that far I would have found a slew of Revolutionary War veterans, but I have only found two, and they are closely related. As far as I can tell with the limited resources I have, most of my male ancestors who lived through the Revolutionary War did not fight in it. Perhaps they were militia rather than enlisted or volunteer, but in any case I have yet to find record of their service.
So I find myself today thinking of all those in my family who have never served in the military. There are quite a few who have. My sister served in peacetime, my father was drafted but served in Europe rather than Vietnam, and two great-uncles and one grandfather served in WWII. There’s a great story about one great-grandfather trying desperately to enlist in WWI only to be stuck in the reserves, and trying to return his reserve pay that he felt he did not reserve. Another great-grandfather did serve in WWI, and counseled my father on the dehumanizing effect of war when he was facing the draft. My uncle served on the USS Yorktown as a “SeaBee” before it was decommissioned, and I wonder if he ever knew that he had an ancestor who fought at Yorktown over a century before?
Yet my brother, a healthy young man, did not go to Iraq or Afghanistan. Neither myself or my oldest sister enlisted, although I once considered it. One of my grandfathers was turned away for a physical deformity despite the fact that it caused him no real disability. In fact, only one of my many cousins enlisted. My mother was dissuaded from joining up by her older brother. By and large, most of my family has not served in the military in any capacity.
Why did I eventually choose to not serve? I had lobbied to be able to attend a private military school as a teen as an antidote to what I perceived to be the chaos of my home life. I admired the idea that hard work and talent paid off in the military, regardless of your background. In the end, I didn’t think I was physically capable after hearing my sister’s stories of boot camp. I don’t regret not serving in wars that I disagree with, but I do regret not serving my country in some capacity.
But I vote. I try to learn as much as I can about our history. I cultivate pride in our ideals while vocally criticizing our shortcomings. I support our troops without necessarily supporting the mission they are on. I’m thankful for everyone in my family who did serve. I learn about them, and discover their names. How old were they? Where were they born?
One of my ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. He was there when Cornwallis surrendered, ending the war. He was in his 50’s when he served. His daughter married a young man who was only 16 when the war began, serving as a volunteer. This Memorial Day I will be thinking about their relationship: father-in-law and son-in-law. Did they fight alongside of each other? Did the elder bring the younger home to dinner? Did he feel protective of this young man who faced the terrifying spectre of marching against the greatest army in the world at that time? Did they serve because they believed in liberty? Or were there other motivations?
What would these two men make of all the wars that followed? How would they feel about the country they helped create today? Did they, like the men of WWI, believe their war would end wars? What would they have to say to the men in our family who served? To those who stayed home to tend the fields? To those like me, who had no stomach for it? It’s tempting to put words into their mouth. Grand speeches of liberty. But I suspect what they would say would surprise me. Quiet words of heroism. Angry memories of hunger and cold. Thoughtful reflections of men dying. Lamentations for those lost, either to war or ideological differences. Memories of the fear that comes from fighting a war an ocean away from your kith and kin. Frustration at leaving a country without hope only to be caught up in fighting for a country with such a frail-looking future. Exultation and relief that they actually achieved their goal. Guilt and satisfaction mingled at being able to return to their hearths and surviving the bloodshed.
I face Memorial Day in humility, knowing I haven’t the ability to follow in the footsteps of those who served, nor do I have the same opportunity to serve in such a profound capacity as the men who fought with Washington did. I am proud of their accomplishments, and mourn what they endured. I am proud of those who serve today, and mourn the circumstances of their service. I can no longer speak to those ancestors who fought centuries ago, but perhaps the best way to honor them is to listen to what those who serve or have served have to say today?
So on Memorial Day I will say a prayer to Columbia, the guiding Goddess of our country, and take time to listen to the words of the men and women who have served our country.