The New York Times has a Memorial Day article whose centerpiece is the photograph of a woman who asked that she be allowed to sleep on the floor beside the coffin of her husband, a Marine who had been killed in Iraq. The author, Lily Burana, writes,
But in this photo — the one that lives on and on online — he merely stands next to the coffin, watching over her. It is impossible to be unmoved by the juxtaposition of the eternal stone-faced warrior and the disheveled modern military wife-turned-widow, him rigid in his dress uniform, her on the floor in her blanket nest, wearing glasses and a baggy T-shirt, him nearly concealed by shadow while the pale blue light from the computer screen illuminates her like God’s own grace.
I believe this photo has had such a long viral life not just because it is so honest but also because it is so modern.
The better world would have been ‘eternal’. Evidence of human grief can be found as far back as the achaeological record extends. It is more than bereavement; more than loss. It is straining forward to catch what has been thrown. For we are never more aware of the weight of legacy than at a graveside.
One funeral that I remember most vividly was the one I couldn’t attend. The deceased had died in Quezon province, a communist guerilla. But I did meet with his mother, a very tall and sober woman, who had retrieved his body from a small provincial funeral parlor to which the corpse had been brought. All she could say was “when I looked into the coffin, he looked so handsome.”
Though we may disagree with the ideology a person may have striven for, there is in someone who goes the last yard for his sincere belief a measure of grace that we can never take from him. People knew this once; perhaps that is why pilots of the Great War saluted their foes as they fell in flames. They had passed beyond our judgment and certainly beyond our scorn.
The contrary view was expressed by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who felt “uncomfortable” about calling the men who died in America’s wars “heroes” because it conjoined their deaths to war, which was a bad thing.
I feel… uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.
Hayes is not so much “wrong” as irrelevant. He doesn’t understand that what he thinks quite literally has no bearing on the truth of what those men did. They marched to their own drummer. The error that Hayes makes it is in thinking that his views can increase or diminish the whys and wherefores of those men’s deaths. That act was a gesture entirely their own. They would have done what they did whether he believed in its validity or not; whether he cared to acknowledge it or not. Shakespeare understood whose views counted at the edge of things: those who knew what was shared. As for the rest:
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
So Hayes is free to go. Neither he nor his opinions will be missed. He may return the bequest without offense. What was imparted was for people like the dead Marine’s wife, rich beyond measure with a gift she would fain return. That is what Memorial Day — and its equivalents all over the world are all about — a time when we would give our thanks to those who have run too far ahead to hear.