May 29, 2011

As a boy I had a vague appreciation for Memorial Day because my father, a Vietnam veteran, treated it as sacrosanct. After watching the morning parade in our home town, he spent time alone, somber and distant, while my friends flocked to the beaches and malls with their families to celebrate the beginning of summer.

Were they wrong to celebrate, I wondered.

I didn’t know. My father rarely spoke about his five years in the Marines. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized he still carried the war with him every day, along with the faint scar across his cheek from an enemy bullet that somehow didn’t kill him in a jungle 13 years before I was born.

My father was conflicted when I received a Marine Corps-option ROTC scholarship for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As pleased as he was that I had chosen to serve, he knew the costs of war. He knew that the U.S. military could be misused, as it had been in Vietnam. He knew that the line between defender and aggressor is permeable, and that good men can cross it easier than many of us imagine is possible.

I didn’t understand any of this as a teenager, and I was confused by his ambivalent response to my career choice. I didn’t see his hidden dichotomy, a divide that affects many veterans. For as much friendship, meaning and identity as the Marine Corps gave him, it also crippled his body and darkened his spirit.

My father never acknowledged his wounds publicly, in part because so many gave everything. Memorial Day is theirs — the war dead — and that is why it is sacrosanct. It belongs to the fallen in each of our nation’s wars, including the misguided ones. For better and worse, each death shaped our nation. Each death contributed to what we are today.

My own war experience in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 was far different from my father’s. I wasn’t wounded. Fortunately, none of the men in my company were killed in action during our tour. But now I know my father’s melancholy on Memorial Day. I feel it, and it’s the reason I found myself on the verge of lashing out last week when a salesman on the street thrust a flier into my hands titled “Memorial Day Blow-out Sale.”

I regained composure and thought about the question I had asked myself as a child: Were they wrong to celebrate?

Few Americans would disagree with the sanctity of Memorial Day. Yet the holiday has become a shopping spree, a party. Retail sales surge as stores release new summer offerings. The holiday weekend is among the top 10 shopping periods each year. Meanwhile, the local parade in my home town is more sparsely attended, and fewer people appear to travel to cemeteries to pay respects to the war dead.

These trends are likely to continue now that the levels of violence have dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan, and American service members appear less frequently in the media. They will continue unless we are more deliberate with our time. After all, our values are shaped by where and how we spend our time.

Memorial Day weekend doesn’t need to be a somber event for all. Naturally, it will be different for those families whose lives have been scarred by combat. But you don’t need to have experienced war to pay your respects.

So this Memorial Day weekend consider taking a half-hour to honor our war dead. Have a conversation with your children or your parents. Pause. Reflect. If you can make more time, visit a cemetery or take a child to a local parade, then talk to them about service. If you can’t travel, watch a Memorial Day concert or parade. Whatever it is, do something deliberate and out of your way.

Is it wrong to celebrate?

No, it’s not wrong. But it will be a far more meaningful celebration if it starts with recognizing why we have the opportunity to celebrate.

Rye Barcott is the author of “It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace.”