It comes on Monday, of course.
At Nijmegen in Holland, during Operation Market-Garden in World War II, the US paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne had to take the bridge in that town – as the Germans held the bridge and capturing it was vital, the Americans were forced to cross the river so they could take it from both ends, thus preventing the Germans from blowing the bridge up. The trouble was that its not like Airborne units carry landing craft with them. And so the men had to cross with what could be made available – collapsible canvas boats without even enough oars, so the men had to use their rifle butts to propel themselves across the river in the face of determined and well-sited enemy forces.
I’m sure all of us have heard descriptions of battle where it is said that the “fighting was fierce” or words to that effect. That is how the fighting across the river was, once the men actually got across – made extra fierce because the paratroopers were pretty much massacred as they rowed across the river and this appeared to build a gigantic, towering rage in the men who made it across. To put it into old, fashioned phrasing, they spared not, but slew. Those paratroopers quite simply fell upon the German defenders like a thunderbolt and regardless of losses started to slaughter them. At least for a while there, no prisoners were taken, even though it does appear that the apparition of these American killing machines quickly stunned and actually frightened the Germans, who were in superior numbers.
What does it all mean, this Memorial Day? That we are remembering our dead in war – but I don’t think that really does justice to what is being marked. Men in war enter into unspeakable terrors and are cut down most horribly. They may be good men or bad men; men who have lived lives of justice and mercy or men who lived lives of disgrace and perfidy – but when sent into battle, the men become heroes. Something appears to click within them and all thought of self vanishes in a fierce desire to grapple with the enemy and emerge victorious. Men who might not have been willing to lend a dollar to a friend will leap upon a live grenade, or distract and enemy machine-gunner, just so his comrades might live, even if only for a few minutes longer.
The soldiers who die in war have lives to live, just as all of us do. The mere thought of ever being in a position where another man is around the corner, determined to kill me, strikes fear in my heart. Some how, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines manage to get past that, and get around the corner – to kill, before they are killed. To fight the enemy. To put their valiant heart between the enemies of the United States and our people. Maybe if I had ever been in that position, I would have passed the test. I only know for certain that the men and women in the graves of our military cemeteries did pass the test; and because they did, very few of us are ever called on to do what they did.
Go on and have the barbecue. Enjoy the time with family and friends. That is ok. It is good that the living go on living – but pause just for a moment some time this Monday and spare a thought for what it means for a soldier to die in battle, and how much you owe them.