This is something I wrote for Memorial Day 2005 and I run it every year:
Soldiers are not chunks of identical clay; each of them has a story, their own reasons for being caught in a war.
Brave? Maybe – sometimes, under some conditions. Scared, mostly. The younger they are, the more likely their presence had to do with restlessness, cockiness. The need to be part of a winning team, the desire to even a score. Kick ass, take names. Kill them all, let God sort them out.
The older they are, the more realistic they are. This was a steady paycheck, or a way to supplement the one they already had. When they join, it’s with their eyes on the future benefit. When they’re in the middle of a war, they think only of surviving the next five minutes. Please, God, please. Let me see my family again.
And when they die in the war, each death leaves a hole in the world. It’s important to remember that, to not see them as a monolithic casualty list or as an acceptable loss.
No loss is acceptable. Ask the parents, the spouses, the children. They try. They tell themselves stories of nobility, sacrifice, a greater cause. They cover it up with the ritual rhetoric. But deep down, they must wonder.
Here is how to count the cost: In high school graduation pictures that will never be replaced with wedding pictures. In wedding rings that will never be worn smooth by years. By the daughters who will walk down the aisle with an uncle or brother instead of Dad. By the sons who will find themselves angry and lost, not understanding why. The children who will hear about their mother’s eyes, their father’s chin but won’t ever see themselves reflected in that face.
By the parents who now understand the quiet obscenity of outliving their own children.
Each and every one of these deaths left a hole in the world. That is why we count them.