I thought I’d repost this from the archive:
We came across a lad from A company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: ‘Shoot me’. He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother.’ I remember that lad in particular. It’s an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind.
-Harry Patch, The Last Fighting Tommy
No one wants to die. However gung-ho they may be, the instinct to survive is ingrained into our very DNA. It is a will so strong it can bring the near-terminally ill back from the edge of darkness. The success of any military depends on this—upon the willingness to kill rather than die. The men who struggled up the beaches of Normandy and through the fields of Gettysburg knew that their only chance of survival was in defeating the enemy. But to march into the fire meant being willing to die regardless of your desire to live. The willingness to sacrifice oneself means overcoming billions of years of evolution. Animals may do this for their young; only humans can do it for a cause, for a nation and for people they have never met.
I hope that during your drinking and barbecuing yesterday, you took a moment to remember what the day was for. The men who fell in our names would not mind the drinking and eating that happens on their day; they would doubtless wish they were there. Perhaps there is no better way of honoring the dead than to enjoy the life they have given us. But we should never forget that they are out there—silent, sleeping, shielding us even in death.
One thing we have learned is that not all of those who fall do so on the battlefield. Some carry wounds that eventually claim them: Lawrence Chamberlain lived to be 85, volunteered for more wars, became governor — all while enduring pain from his war wounds and eventually dying from them. Others carry their wounds inside: the haunting memories and searing trauma that drive so many to take their own lives or to bury their pasts in drink or drugs. All around us today are those who are slowly dying from the wounds they took for us, the soul-scaring terror they endured for us, the eyes of those they had to kill for us. Come some Memorial Day, we will be remembering them too.