Today is Memorial Day. Officially the day we set aside to remember those who have died in the service of the country in wartime, unofficially the start of the summer season. As with most customs, the practice of Memorial Day has changed over time. Once a genuinely solemn occasion, Memorial Day is now little more than an excuse for backyard barbecues, trips to the beach, and sales events at big box retailers and auto dealerships.
Originally called Decoration Day, it was conceived as a commemoration of the soldiers who died in the American Civil War. Most Americans observed it with a trip to the cemetery, there to lay flowers on the graves of their own dead. At a distance of 150 years and counting, the Civil War seems little more than an abstraction for most of us, a faint cultural memory. But it is almost impossible to overstate that epic struggle’s bitter impact at the time. So large and far-reaching was the conflict that almost every extended family lost at least one member. Stung from the humiliation of painful, total defeat, not a single Southern state would recognize Decoration Day until after World War I, when it was renamed and re-dedicated as a day to commemorate the dead of every American War.
It signifies, I suppose, a minor preoccupation with mortality that Memorial Day is less a holiday for me than an occasion for some serious reflecting. I actually flinch a little when I hear people refer to the Memorial Day “holiday,” what with that term’s lighthearted connotation. It helps a little to remember that this happy little word derives from holy day, a term with a decidedly more solemn intonation. I can live with that. Memorial day has extra meaning for me because I grew up in the shadow of World War II, another epic struggle now rapidly receding from the nation’s collective memory, and witnessed nearly every day its lingering aftermath among men who served in it.
At the time I was growing up, World War II was still a relatively fresh memory. If someone mentioned “the war” you didn’t have to stop and think “which one?” Reminders of it were everywhere, in the entertainment of the time, the books and movies, the cultural references and memes (though that term had not yet been invented.) You were surrounded by people who had served in it, directly or indirectly. Although a few of the older kids in my neighborhood had fathers who served in the war, most of my cohort’s parents were not quite old enough to have done so. That task was conferred upon their parents, a group grandly labeled The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw in his book of the same name. For me, though, the war was personified by my maternal grandfather, a man by the name of Harry Burleigh.
As readers of this blog already know, my father died when I was very young. His death was a terrible trauma, and left a huge void in my young life. Into that void stepped my grandfather, who became something of a surrogate father to me and my brother. It was a role he did not exactly relish, but carried out anyway. He did so because it was the responsible, dutiful thing to do. And if men of his generation knew anything, they knew responsibility and duty.
There is a principle, which I modestly call Snell’s Law since I have propounded it, which states that it is impossible for any outcome or circumstance to be either 100 percent advantageous, or 100 percent disadvantageous. Or to put it another way, when one door closes, another opens. Traumatic as my father’s death was, it directly caused me to have a close relationship with my grandfather, something that almost certainly would not have occurred had my father lived. This matters much, because in truth I can think of no individual who has influenced me more profoundly than Harry Burleigh. Because I knew him, I also knew his friends and associates. I grew up surrounded by men who had seen and done extraordinary things yet made no special mention of it, who had endured unthinkable ordeals without complaint, men who unfailingly fulfilled their obligations and got things done. These men became my role models.
A Matter of Duty
I do not wish to or reduce my grandfather’s generation to heroic cardboard-cutouts, nor to thoughtlessly idolize them. By today’s standards, the men of his era would be seen as somehow deficient. They weren’t all that interested in sharing their feelings, tended to be disciplinarians, regarded the workplace as primarily a male domain. They didn’t want to hear your excuses nor did they worry too much about sparing your feelings. They didn’t really get worked up about the plight of this or that minority. But when I compare the culture and achievements of my grandfather’s generation to what passes these days for manhood I cannot help but wonder: My god, have we really fallen that far, that fast?
If I were to sum up my grandfather in a single word, it would be “formidable.” But that really doesn’t do him justice. A handsome man with a passing resemblance to the actor Gregory Peck, he was also charismatic, driven, razor-sharp, iconoclastic, profane, savagely irreverent, ferociously atheistic, authentically original. Oddly, he insisted that everyone, even his child and grandchildren, refer to him as “Harry.” Not Father or Dad, not Granddad, Pops, Gramps. Just Harry. This forced informality never really felt right because my grandfather was not exactly the warm and fuzzy sort. But that was part of the deal and we all accepted it.
If you met Harry Burleigh, you remembered him; he was that kind of guy. Case in point: A few years ago, I attended an event with a girlfriend of mine. Also in attendance was this girlfriend’s friend, an older woman well-known in Austin civic circles. Somehow, during a conversation with this woman it came to light that my grandparents had lived near her. She asked their names. I told her. Her reaction was immediate and electric. “Your grandfather was Harry Burleigh?” she queried in a tone of voice suddenly brimming with respect. “I remember Harry.” She then told me the story of having met my grandparents at a social function more than thirty years before, at which she and my grandfather had a single, apparently memorable, conversation.
Already well into a distinguished career when war broke broke out, my grandfather decided to enlist within days of the Pearl Harbor attack. He did not have to. He was past draft age, had a family and responsibilities, and could easily and in good conscience have sat that one out. But he put his career on hold, said goodbye to his wife and daughter, and joined the Army. When asked why, he said “They came to our office and said they needed engineers. What could I say?”
There is a picture of my mother and grandparents taken at the time, a single frame that nevertheless speaks volumes. The setting is a train station, to which they have come to see my grandfather off to basic training. All are formally dressed, as was appropriate for what was, in fact, a gravely serious occasion. My grandmother is glaring at my grandfather, flinging daggers of angry reproach. He studiously ignores her, his face bearing the expression of a man who has long since tired of explaining himself. My mom looks about like you would expect for a young child caught between feuding parents. My grandmother, a formidable person in her own right, was furious with my grandfather for enlisting when he did not have to, leaving her and their child to face wartime hardships on their own. She saw it as the height of irresponsibility and never forgave him for it. He saw enlistment as his solemn duty and refused to explain further or apologize. This irreconcilable difference was to color their relationship for the rest of their lives.
Duty. There’s that word again. If you want to get a feel for how our society has changed over the last several decades, you could start by examining how our conception of “duty” has evolved. A quaint and curious concept now, one with a decidedly negative connotation, duty was at one time one of those bedrock principles that defined society, and which that society’s members instinctively understood to exist. It was a simple quid pro quo: From those to which much is given, much is expected. You do your share, you do it right, and you don’t complain. People of my grandparents’ generation understood duty and practiced it without being asked. By contrast, our entitled, pampered, me-first culture seems to see duty as a literal and figurative four-letter word, and anyone who subscribes to the concept as a sucker.
An Army of Citizens
On the American side, World War II was fought and won mostly by volunteers like my grandfather. They were part of a long tradition of the citizen-soldier, who took up arms in times of national need, and then returned home to resume their lives. Their service was consonant with their sense of shared responsibility and citizenship, and ultimately helped to reinforce the sense of belonging to a great and worthy enterprise, of being an American. Now our wars are fought by professional solders. They fight less as Americans than as members of this Company or that Battalion. Furthermore, for those who serve, it is more of a job than a cause. This distinction is crucial. Waging war is no longer a shared responsibility amongst citizens, and has been pushed to the periphery of our collective consciousness. This most grave of undertakings has been trivialized and made routine. At the same time, the men (and women) who fight these wars have become distanced from the body of the citizenry. They have become a distinct class–the warrior class–with different rites, different rules, and a different historical lineage than the rest of us. Worst of all, the waging of war has become, essentially, a business, more and more frequently employed to serve transient political ends.
It is said that wars are started by old men but finished by young ones. There is a reason for that. Testosterone surging through their veins, young men are spoiling for a fight anyway much of the time. But more importantly, males in their teens are not yet fully formed. They can more easily be turned into instinctive and unflinching killers. Their native aggression can be more easily focused and turned into rage, to be directed at the enemy. And their incomplete sense of humanity can be more easily squelched, so that they come to think of the enemy not as people like themselves, but as dangerous beasts, subhuman, vile, something to be hated, something to be destroyed. Another dirty little secret about war is that young men find it alluring, in an atavistic kind of way, because it is the ultimate test of manhood. Throw in the promise of adventure, the chance to score some loot, and maybe some o’ that slanty-eyed poontang too and you have a nearly irresistible proposition.
World War II was a different kind of war, though. Millions of men in their 30s, 40s and even 50s volunteered. My grandfather was 36 when he enlisted. In some respects older men make better soldiers. They are wiser, less likely to take foolish risks, and more collaborative than their younger counterparts. They also make better leaders, their judgement is more mature, and they are much more careful with the lives of their charges. The downside is that the brutality of war wounds the older man much more deeply than the younger. The young man spots an enemy soldier and sees something needing to be put down without hesitation or regret. An older man spots that same enemy soldier and sees not some kind of dangerous beast, but a man, like himself. Maybe the fellow even reminds him of someone he knows back home. When he raises his rifle and shoots that man down, it’s like killing Joe Bob over at the Chevy dealership. It leaves a mark.
My grandfather’s assignment throughout the war was to lead reconnaissance teams, first in North Africa and then in Italy. The job of recon was to find the enemy, the idea being that you can’t fight him unless you know where he is. You knew the enemy was over there somewhere, so you climbed in your jeep and you went looking for him. When somebody started shooting at you, you knew you’d found him. It was a pretty busy theater of operations, so they found the enemy a lot.
Odd as it seems, recon was actually regarded as good duty by a certain type. You operated independently, under very general instructions. You were basically on your own, making your own decisions, living by your wits. But what the job lacked in regimentation, it more than made up for in danger, because the enemy had an unfortunate habit of showing up rather unexpectedly. In recon you never engaged except in self-defense, but in a surprise situation, instincts take over, and he who was quickest on the trigger usually prevailed. My grandfather’s squads never lost a single man, a claim the other side could not make.
Amazingly, despite dozens of close scrapes, my grandfather made it through more than three years of combat without suffering a single wound. A single physical wound, that is. The stress of constantly being in danger took a toll, though. By war’s end this man of sturdy frame and greater than average height was a walking skeleton weighing a mere 115 pounds.
The Long Shadow of War
My grandfather survived the war by forty-three years, but he never really left it behind. I believe that it was with him every single minute of every single day for the rest of his life, like a kind of psychic background noise that never, ever went completely away. Much of the time he was able, through sheer willpower or compulsive busyness, to push the war far enough away that he could have the semblance of a normal life. But sometimes, I think, he simply tired of suppressing it, and allowed himself to surrender to the memories. I learned to recognize the signs. He would be reading, doing paperwork, occupying himself in some way, when he would pause, his expression would change ever so slightly, and suddenly he would be far, far away, with his men once again in that terrible place of fire and blood. After a few trance-like moments he would come to, blink once or twice like a man emerging into sunlight from a dark place, and without saying a word, return to whatever he had been doing.
Although my grandfather would not talk about it–men of that era did not speak of personal things–an extraordinary, indescribably intense bond forms between men who have served together in combat, as if in compensation for having to endure its horrors. The bond endures forever, undiminished by time or distance, surviving, sometimes, even death itself. I remember once being present when my grandfather received a phone call informing him that a comrade had died. His voice was so calm and matter-of-fact as he received the news that it left me cold. He told me later, though, that he had known in a flash as he reached for the phone exactly who had died and how it had happened.
Like most of his fellow citizen-soldiers, my grandfather rarely if ever talked about combat. He preferred to tell G-rated stories about funny or odd things that had happened, not stories of death and fighting. It was only through years of asking gently probing questions that I was able to pierce the veil of silence and gain a full appreciation of his unimaginably harrowing experience. Once and only once in the time that I knew him did he fully let his guard down and speak openly about the men he had personally killed. We were about to sit down to a Thanksgiving meal. My grandfather delivered the invocation, for the most part a pretty standard litany. But he concluded by saying, “and to those men I killed in the War, I am deeply, deeply sorry. I deprived you of the rest of your lives and I regret it every single day.”
That was the last invocation my grandfather was to give. A few days later he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and within two months he was gone. I was living in Florida at the time. When I heard how sick he was I immediately flew home to be with him. I arrived just in time to see him being loaded into the hearse. At the sight of his lifeless body, I was suddenly overcome with grief and wept inconsolably, the first tears I had shed, other than in dreams, since childhood.
They are leaving us, these ordinary yet special men, hundreds each and every day. Soon they will all be gone, and with their passing a page of history will have turned. When the last living links to that titanic struggle have been severed, the world will be a little different somehow, a little diminished. Although World War II brought conflict and suffering on an immense and unprecedented scale, it also brought clarity, unity, and a sense of purpose to at least one nation that badly needed them. Its conclusion reordered the world in a way that made possible decades of peace and prosperity. And hope. Today, though we are materially rich, we seem poor of spirit, lacking in meaningful purpose, and jaded beyond words. And the future, once bright, now seems murky, uncertain, and vaguely menacing.
I like to imagine that somewhere, in a dimension beyond this one, there is a great hall, a sort of anteroom to the Hereafter, where all the men of that War go to await one final muster. There is no pain in this place, no fear, no blood, no mud, no filth, no hatred; there is only lightness, fellowship, and peace. When the time arrives, the roll is called. After all the names are read and those assembled answer “present” for the last time, there comes a final order: “Company dismissed.”
So on this day of solemn remembrance, I offer my thanks to Harry Burleigh, and to all the men of his generation who did their duty, did it well and without complaint, and then went on to be the best damned bunch of citizens this nation has ever known. Wherever you are, all of you, I hope you have found peace at last.