I didn’t realize I had written so many posts about Memorial Day or which paid tribute to fallen soldiers until I went back and counted them up. But maybe it was destined to be. I grew up in Arlington, VA, and one of my first summer jobs was cutting grass at the Fort Myer chapel outside the gates of the famous military cemetery. I would have to stop mowing when a funeral took place—sometimes two, three, or four times a day. When that happened, I would sit under a tree and watch and think about the proceedings.
Many years later, I met Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty in the parking lot next to the chapel and we went for an early-morning run. Fenty and I were friends from Fort Drum, and now he was about to deploy to Afghanistan as commander of 3-71 Cavalry. While in Afghanistan Fenty was killed when the helicopter he was riding in crashed while resupplying a remote mountain outpost in Kunar province.
Punk poet-rocker Jim Carroll was famous for a song called “People Who Died.” In it he recounts the names and causes of death of a dozen or more childhood friends who did not survive the tough New York streets of Carroll’s youth. I always liked Carroll plenty, but never that song so much. It seemed to be trying too hard to be clever and sensational. It was frustratingly inconclusive about what we were supposed to make of the deaths of Carroll’s friends. How was it honoring them? Does it glorify their wild, unruly lives, or are we supposed to despair? The title of the song alone seems oddly understated, not equal to the occasion.
But maybe that’s the point. The litany of the dead being both the most and the least we can say.
On this Memorial Day, I remember friends Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker.
I remember soldiers with whom I served in Afghanistan Kevin Dupont, John Blair, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson.
I remember former students I taught at West Point Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, Taylor Force, and Brian Freeman.
The photograph featured at the top of this post shows Army Captain David Taylor, on the right, standing with another soldier on a hilltop in Kosovo in 2002. Previous to serving with me in Kosovo, then-Lieutenant Taylor was my mortar platoon leader in HHC, 4-325 Airborne Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg. In 2006, now-Major Taylor died in an IED explosion in Iraq. The photograph is by Bill Putnam, who was a public affairs specialist on that deployment to Kosovo and who remains a friend to this day, as well as a frequent contributor to Time Now.
Not entirely unrelated to Memorial Day pondering, I wrote a review of Phil Klay’s collected essays, titled Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War for Task & Purpose:
One of Klay’s themes is that war in Iraq and Afghanistan soon expanded outside the borders of those countries and the associated violence and killing has permeated US domestic life. Sort of a modern variation on the “regeneration through violence” explanation of American history articulated by Richard Slotkin–each successive generation of Americans propagates a renewed cycle of death. In the wake of recent national and international events, the idea seems all too true, unfortunately. Another of Klay’s themes, though, is that commitment to serve is commendable and the sacrifice that service entails is noble. Memorial Day reminds us of the force of the second theme.
UPDATE: Below are two pictures from Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery I took this Memorial Day weekend. Section 60 is where most of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are buried in Arlington are buried. Though the pictures here don’t show it, there were many family members and friends paying respect and keeping vigil.