A Memorial Day truce, and other reflections

As I was firing up the grill about midday, between rainstorms, I glanced at Twitter and was pleased to find this:

RT @AntonJGunn: Remembering my brother Cherone Gunn and his ship mates this Memorial Day.http://twitpic.com/1srfpw

For those of you not yet addicted to Twitter, what’s going on there is that Joe Wilson was reTweeting — that is, sharing with all of his 14,000 followers, Anton Gunn’s sharing of his memory of his brother, Cherone L. Gunn, who was one of the sailors killed on the USS Cole when it was attacked by al Qaeda the year before the 9/11 attacks.

Yes, that was Joe “You Lie” Wilson honoring the brother of the same Anton Gunn whom GOP candidate Sheri Few attacks as a dangerous socialist.

So it is that we set aside our pettier conflicts in the memory of something higher and better.

We all marked the day in our own ways. Burl went by Punchbowl to honor his parents and Ernie Pyle. For my part, I cooked out burgers and hot dogs for as many members of my family as could make it (only three of my kids, but all four granddaughters). Then I made another run with the truck to help one of my daughters get moved out of an apartment. Then I took a nap.

When I woke up, just a little while ago, I watched the end of Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.”

It ended a little differently from the book, which I just finished reading last week. It ended with the scene of young “Doc” Bradley and some of the other boys splashing in the surf at Iwo Jima. After they had raised the flag over Mt. Suribachi, in a brief interlude in the fighting, some officer had the quirky idea of letting the guys go for a swim. There were weeks of nightmarish fighting against an unseen enemy yet to come, and three of the six flagraisers would be killed before it was over.

The point the narrator was making as we watched them was that they would probably rather be remembered that way, rather than as heroes. Yes, they were heroes, although not for raising a flag. They were heroes for all the other things they did on Iwo Jima, before and after that. Doc Bradley won the Navy Cross for exposing himself to withering enemy fire to treat a wounded Marine (he was a Navy corpsman). He never told his family about the medal; they learned about it after he died in 1994. He didn’t want to be known for that. He just wanted to live his life, build a business and raise his family.

The narrator closes with some words about how they didn’t perform their acts of heroism for flags, or their country, or for abstractions. They did it for each other. Which is what researchers who have studied the way men act in combat have discovered over and over. It’s all about the guy next to you. It’s about your buddies. Nothing profound about that, except that most people who’ve never been in combat probably don’t know it. The implication in this case is that once you’re separated from those buddies, by death or distance, the “heroism” doesn’t mean so much. And it’s just plain bizarre to be celebrated as heroes in the midst of the hoopla of the 7th Bond Drive, the way Bradley and Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes were. Ira never could handle it, and ended up drinking himself to death. Rene never could get over the fact that his fame didn’t lead to fortune, and was disappointed. Only Doc Bradley seemed to get it together and live a normal, full, satisfying life after the war. Even though he would whimper and cry in the night, and never tell his wife why.

When forced to speak before crowds in the years after the battle, Bradley and the others would tell the people that they weren’t the heroes; the heroes were the ones who didn’t make it. Guys like Mike Strank — or, to go beyond the six, the most famous hero to die on that cinder: John Basilone, who had received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal and never had to fight again, but insisted on going back, and died on the first day of the battle for Iwo (earning the Navy Cross in the process). But that’s the conventional notion of a hero, and not necessarily what they meant.

Talk about messages… The instant I turned off the DVD player from watching “Flags of Our Fathers,” the TV switched to Henry’s “Vultures” ad, just to remind us of the nonsense facing us in the coming week.

What a bringdown, from heroism and the finest selflessness our nation is capable of, to that, which is if anything an appeal to the opposite…

Punchbowl National Cemetery in Punchbowl crater on Oahu.

One thought on “A Memorial Day truce, and other reflections

  1. Bart

    Saturday was the highlight of my Memorial Day weekend. After using the last of the bird/squirrel feed, I went to Tractor Supply to replenish the larder for our feather n fur backyard friends.

    While there, I waited behind a couple who were decidedly older. The gentleman talked to me about his wife and their feather/fur friends at their home in Marion.

    When I left, I noticed he was having trouble loading the bags in his car. Went to help him with them and after loading the car, he told me he was one of the thousands of soldiers on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He told a couple of stories about how it was to see 2,500 of his fellow soldiers lose their lives on the beach that day.

    When he finished, I reached out and asked permission to shake his hand because I felt a tremendous honor just being in his company for a brief time. His manner was friendly, attitude fantastic, and you could see that extra spark in his eyes when he talked.

    For a while, it was a little difficult to see and I felt humbled by this 85 year old man who saw in one day more death and destruction than we can ever imagine. Not only on that day but for months afterwards, he and his fellow soldiers fought through hedgerows, farm buildings, trenches, ditches, mud, and everything nature could throw at them.

    I met and shook the hand with one member of the “Greatest Generation”. My Memorial Day weekend was very special.

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