I am a relatively young Marine, meaning WW II and Korea are only history lessons to me, but I did pay attention in class. I was in the tail end of the conflict in the Republic of Vietnam where, in case word has not filtered down, we got our butts handed to us.
I watch the news every evening and see the missing limbs and mangled bodies of young people who deserve a better fate.
I believe as a sergeant who paid dues, I am just as entitled to my opinion as anyone else, not more entitled, just as. Therefore, it was a surprise to learn my thoughts about honoring the dead and injured were not respected at the local Legion, and almost got me lynched. I am not a liberal, I am not a conservative, just a citizen in good standing (vote, pay taxes, bitch and moan) with a very strong opinion about what is an appropriate monument to men and women who gave their lives to preserve a country that inspires freedom-seeking people all over the globe. We sometimes forget the reason we have an immigration problem is as much about the lust for liberty as it is for economic opportunity. We are so lucky.
The debate at the bar started, as it usually does, about the "black ditch," the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Do not get me wrong, I admire this monument, the somber message it sends about forgotten, un-honored warriors and its echoes of an open grave speak to me. The black granite is a solemn reminder of both the finality of sacrifice and the eternal commitment freedom requires. If you know any of the story of Maya Lin, the Wall's designer, you know about courage.
* * *
All I said that night was, "There is one war monument we can agree that needs to be built. It would have as much meaning as the rows of headstones in Arlington, the ten thousand crosses in Normandy, or the unmarked remains lying hidden in an Asian jungle. I bet there is not one man here tonight at the Legion, who would not trade every block of marble ever used to mark a hero's gravesite in exchange for a single memorial that every soldier would approve."
Then I shut up; a mistake, I should have just finished that Budweiser and gone out the door. When you state, in public, that every veteran would agree on an idea, you have set yourself against the tide of all discussions at the Legion. Everyone has an opinion and they will defend it until closing time moves the debate into the parking lot. Add to that the phrase, "I bet…" and you can see how I got myself into hot water.
Someone demanded to know what monument could possibly have as much meaning as the rows of white headstones standing at attention in Arlington. I turned to this older gentleman (for whom Korea was probably a memory, not a history lesson) and I asked, "If we could resurrect a single hero at Arlington, would you ask him a question for me?" That gave him pause; the scent of bourbon on his breath seemed to dissipate as his eyes focused on my face.
"What's the question?" He set his glass down.
Think carefully about what you are going to say next when someone sets his or her drink down on the bar.
"Would you ask him if he wants to be remembered as dying for the cause of freedom or for an equally worthy goal?"
He did not pause one second, "What's that?"
I set my beer bottle down, stood up, and slid my barstool aside. When he stood up, we were nose to collar button; he had eight inches on me.
"Ask him if we have disappointed him, since we did not fulfill our promise." I paused and looked around what had become a very quiet room. "A promise we all made to ourselves, a promise we have not kept for our children."
Again, not a second's hesitation, "What promise?"
"What branch were you in?" I asked him, knowing the meaning of the bulldog tattoo on his arm.
"When you got out did you say this to yourself, "It will be a cold day in hell before my son or daughter ever joins the Corps."
He hesitated, reached for his bourbon, took a sip, and set it down. "Son, I have seen things so horrible you cannot imagine…I remember a young private frozen to death with his weapon still in his arms." He shook his head. "You're right, I swore no kid of mine would ever have to see or do the things that happened to me." The courteous silence was broken by murmurs of agreement and assent.
I asked him the question I have always wanted to ask at the Legion, "Would you agree that for any soldier, there is only one fitting memorial to stand watch over his or her grave and it doesn't matter which side they fought on; doesn't even matter if they won or lost."
He stared at me and nodded, "You're right, we didn't keep the peace,
the only fitting memorial."
Whit Young is a failed Quaker who became a Sergeant in the USMC, graduated from pharmacy school and spent 30 years in the trenches of hospital pharmacy. He learned late in life that the pen is not only mightier than the sword, it trumps a Trident submarine.