A note of celebration for those boys and young men who survived combat would add an upbeat tone to the pall of Memorial Day as it is now, combat being the defining difference; remembering those who fought as well as those who died.
Remember the boys in Marine uniforms: frightened, insect-bitten, drenched by sweat in the bowels of combat in the jungles of places such as Guadalcanal — who survived?
Remember the terrified brave boys of Khe Sahn, Vietnam, surrounded by Viet Cong, under constant threat of death from the sky as enemy artillery whistled and exploded but who survived to fight on in a senseless war?
Remember the boys of Iraq living in constant dread that the streets beneath them might explode, did explode mangling a good buddy; what about the teenagers who constantly wonder, “Is the next IED for me?”
Remember all the boys and young men who swallow their fear, look out for their buddies and themselves in combat, and make it home — with post-traumatic stress. What do we owe them?
It might also be a teaching moment to have a holiday to remember those important men in suits who sent those boys to fight and die for misbegotten wars such as Vietnam and Iraq.
Of course, there is Veterans Day in November, which began as a salute to veterans of World War I and only later was expanded to include all veterans. Veterans Day should be for those who never fired a weapon in anger or fear, those whose service was marginal — like mine.
Navy boot camp was not as rigorous as the Army or Marine versions, but I lost weight and have never been in better physical shape under the tutelage of a man named Tarango, our drill instructor and alleged to be the all-service heavyweight boxing champion.
I also learned such domestic skills as folding uniforms to fit in a sea locker (a bureau drawer in civilian life) carefully enough to avoid wrinkles, which would be noted at the frequent inspections.
Our boot camp company avoided liberty-limiting demerits because, as company clerk, I wrote down only the demerits from the inspecting officer that were obvious and I agreed with. Tarango said we survived because of “Ayers’ magic pen.”
Next came sea duty on the USS Alstede, a floating grocery store, where I stood radar watch in rotation and, because of my two years of college, I was given a clipboard to count how many hundred-pound sacks of potatoes my crew and I put on the cargo net in lower ‘tween of number-two hold.
Then I was supposed to chip and paint mothballed ships in Green Cove Springs, Fla., where I met the personnel officer with a copy of War and Peace under my arm and a Sherlock Holmes pipe. Certain that I didn’t know which end of a chipping hammer to use, he assigned me to the base newspaper.
My last post (are you bored yet?) was to write speeches and press releases for a vice admiral who did not make speeches and avoided the press. I got a lot of reading done on the admiral’s staff.
Until the draft ended in 1973, surely hundreds of thousands of young men did their time in the military as uselessly as I did, but we qualify as veterans who are remembered on Veterans Day.
This veteran on Memorial Day filled his thoughts with touching and prideful moments in our history, not all of which were in times of war.
I am touched by the Arlington Memorial to Confederate dead whose citation speaks of universal values: Not for fame or reward/ Not for place or for rank/ Not lured by ambition/ Or goaded by necessity/ But in simple/ obedience to duty/ as they understood it/ These men suffered all, sacrificed all/ Dared all — and died.
Similarly, I am moved by Abraham Lincoln’s wish in his first inaugural that the country will be united once again through “the mystic chords or memory” and by his great Gettysburg Address.
The solemn dignity of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri was a moment of sober pride for the United States, as was the salvation of Berlin through the airlift during the Cold War.
Hearing our national anthem played at the formal ratification of the Camp David Accords declaring peace between Israel and Egypt made native pride swell with the knowledge our president could bring peace to historic enemies.
The United States is a good idea, the best idea that the ingenuity of man has created in the totality of recorded history. Those who died for that idea deserve being remembered.
But on patriotic holidays it is good to remember those who fought and survived to keep liberty alive, and to remember that we honor our heritage, not only by fighting and dying, but also by making peace.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.