It’s memorial day and the world is filled with Facebook posts, blogs, tweets, and news headlines honoring those veterans without whom I would not be able to sit here and write. It is good and honorable to talk about those vets who have given their last breath to make sure that I am free enough to be at Starbucks with my tattoos and Torah and laptop. The sacrifices they made push the boundaries of love.
I am a little disturbed, however, by what I am seeing and reading. I am disturbed by what I am not seeing and reading. There are pictures of flags. There are rows and rows of headstones. There are statues and memorials. They speak of death and loss, of the ultimate sacrifice paid by our soldiers. They speak to the men and women who died, who didn’t come back.
The loss of these men and women is horrific and I pray for a day when we will no longer beat “swords into plowshares and… spears into pruning hooks; (when) nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4). But I have to wonder if theirs is the ultimate sacrifice.
We hear daily about post traumatic stress disorder and its links to long term military service. We see pictures of the soldiers who have come home missing limbs, with head-wounds that leave them a completely different person. We read about soldiers who have had limbs blown off, who have had friends die in front of their faces, who have come home so psychologically scarred that they cannot relate to their family and friends anymore. And we say to them “at least you came home alive”. We assume that whatever sacrifice they made, whatever pain they are in, it is better than death. It is less of a sacrifice than life.
I’m not sure I believe this to be true. I imagine these men and women, so damaged fighting for us, and I wonder if their half-lives aren’t the most painful war stories imaginable. Death, I believe, brings us into unity with G…d. But a half-life of pain and anguish, whether psychological or physical, is torment. It is horror and night terrors and yes, it is also the potential for healing, but that healing is not promised to anyone.
I’m not saying we should not honor our fallen soldiers. I truly and deeply believe that we should. I know that the life I live is a privileged one, hard won by men and women who do what I cannot do. I know that I live free because of the deaths of millions of others. What I would hope, however, is that this memorial day, we do more than remember the fallen who have found the peace of death. Theirs is not the only sacrifice. Theirs are not the only lives lost. Let us also remember those who come home, alive but broken in profoundly painful ways, whose sacrifice is carried with them well beyond their time of service. They live each day without the peace that they fought so hard to win for us. They live each day continually sacrificing. These are the men and women who come home dead, though they still walk. They must be a part of our memories. They must be a part of our observances. Their sacrifices are not done, and it is shameful if we think we are done with them.