It was a warm, late summer day. I had dropped off a friend at the Twin Cities airport and was heading home. My drive took me passed Fort Snelling Military Cemetery. I’ve lived in Minneapolis for 35 years and had never gone onto the grounds. But on that day I was drawn in. As I walked among headstones I saw how the bone white marble markers, laid out in endless rows and columns on living green fields, created the impression of the dead radiating out in all directions in endless lines. It was the geometry of loss and grief.
Military cemeteries are stark reminders of what war has robbed from us; all those vibrant lives lost and so many more wounded in flesh and spirit.
Traditionally, Veterans Day is a time for reflection; a time to resurrect memories good and bad. It is the one day in the year where we observe 240 years of military service by millions of men and women and the ultimate sacrifice too many of them made. Most of us think of Veterans Day as dedicated to remembering the past.
However, Veterans Day is also a day to contemplate the future and the sacrifices we will ask of our fellow citizens who answer that Call. It is a day when we reconsider the terrible costs of the past. It is a time when we can look to the future and apply the lessons of history.
Veterans Day is for asking the question, “What causes are so important that they demand we pay a blood sacrifice?”
Walking through Fort Snelling with all those lives laid out before me, stripped away my emotional armor. I stopped before a pair of headstones, one belonging to a soldier who had fought in the First World War and lived until 1950, and the other was his wife who had lived another 40 years until 1990. His stone reminded me of the millions who had survived war and returned home wounded in body and mind. Her stone stood for all the military families touched by war.
All those markers represent a complex web of relationships expanding outward from the person to the family and beyond. They also represent the flow of consequences forward through time: initial medical and psychiatric care and the extended support for the maimed, broken families, addicted, homeless, and troubled.
What We Owe Our Service Members
First and foremost, we owe those in the services a pledge that we will never allow them to be sent into conflict without a thorough public debate, active involvement of the Legislature and the Executive, and unstinting long-term support for all personnel and their families. We have to do much better than we have so far.
In particular, whether a war is ongoing or a looming possibility, we are responsible as citizens of a democracy for weighing war’s moral, human, social and economic costs. We are also responsible for communicating with our legislators. If they refuse to debate and make decisions, it is then our duty to make them listen and act.
The worst thing that we can do is send our service members, their families and our nation into an unnecessary war.