When you’re young and idealistic, you want to sacrifice yourself for the good of the cause. It’s not only encouraged in the military, but it’s expected. Glorified. Idealized and stylized. Whitewashed, but we don’t talk about that—it’s passed down in this onion that we let others talk about on Memorial Day. But we don’t peel. We let some old crusty or a young ambitious recite “In Flanders Fields” under a small-town gazebo while we stand respectfully, shaded eyes under straw hats as little American flags droop from our hands.
But the speeches end, and someone plays “Born in the USA” because they’ve never listened to the fucking lyrics. The sacrifice sits up on its pedestal, hidden behind the flowing robes of some Greek goddess who, in the name of freedom, calls upon the farmer-soldier just this one last time. She reassures everyone in the hotdog line that it was all worth it—for you personally, old man, that’s right. It was worth it. And he believes her.
The old man holds the hand of a young boy in the crowd, and he points out the goddess upon the pedestal he built. She reaches out and lets her robes slip down her shoulder, and she smiles of wisdom and glory and power. “All can be yours,” she says to the boy. “All I ask is everything.”
And how he yearns to give it! To be allowed a knowing glance at an old buddy, and a firm handshake from the village elders. The boy cries out, “Anything! All that I have! Just let me earn the right to let slip a tear during gazebo man’s speech!” The Greek goddess smiles the kind of smile he needs to see.
--Ten years pass.--
The young man runs from obstacle to obstacle, exhausted. He hadn’t eaten much. His group of phony toughs and crazy braves were almost Marines—but not quite. Panting, the young idealists drag themselves into a clearing in the South Carolina swamp; a hulk of bolts and telephone poles stands silent before them. The Marine Corps recruits of platoon 1069 think they’ve already earned some slack, and take the opportunity to rest their hands on their knees. They are quickly corrected by a man in a broad, crisp hat.
The recruits stand small in the shadow of the spiny obstacle. Tangled telephone poles and thick, coarse ropes give the impression of a thicket that a Disney hero has to hack through. In front of the woven mess is a simple cast iron plaque; gold lettering on brown background. At the top, a name and a rank. Just below that, a single, final date—not two dates with a dash, because the birthdate is irrelevant—and the name of a place they’ve all heard before: Khe Shan, Chosin Reservoir, Iwo Jima. Below, a concise description elevates the name to the superhuman, but also gives flesh and blood to the abstract pride they’ve been screaming about for three months.
The engraved descriptions of Marine Corps Medal of Honor winners is wrenching and exalting. Humbling and inspiring. To stand in the presence of such greatness, such sacrifice, such a reverent, understated monument to public service makes them all feel small. Yet the young man’s lungs burst with pride at having discovered something that only a few could ever understand. The seclusion and discovery contained in this repressed corner of an off-limits area gives him the feeling of an explorer. Doctor Livingston, he presumes! They stand in awe at the feet of some hero forgotten to all except those who might dare, might brave, might climb and hack just to find this no-name clearing. And the group of lost souls arrive at something they’ve have heard tell of, to see it carved in iron by some long-omitted craftsman.
For they too are nameless, bedraggled. Their uniforms are filthy and sag while clinging to waists trimmed by months of calisthenics. Their faces bear the remnants of camouflage paint—war paint—where sweat has not yet run it down their necks to collect in pores of their darkest places. They stink, but do not realize it.
One among them steps forward to read aloud the emblazoned deeds. His voice carries through the unorganized circle—a welcome departure from the regimented marching the young proselytes are used to. In this smallest of personal decisions allowed—simply where to stand and listen—there is a softening, humanizing current, and no one makes a sound. Only the easing panting of 30 idealists, adventurers, outcasts, and runaways can be heard as the one begins.
“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to…”
Something swells inside their collective breast. A bond begins to form, perhaps, but no man can see outside himself just yet. The panting subsides and a turbulent stillness comes over the clearing—each man jealous of the patriot he may never be.
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty…”
Doubts pick at the fringes of the moment—perhaps the individual man will never live up to this highest of honors. Perhaps, maybe, if. What if?
“As he neared the casualty, be observed an enemy grenade land nearby and, reacting instantly, leaped between the injured Marine and the lethal object…”
“…He gallantly gave his life for his country.” A stillness falls, and a chill sweeps the sultry swamp. A moment passes and every man stands, not quite sure what to do. Every man yearns for the chance to save another in combat, and be immortalized on some forlorn plaque in the South Carolina swamp. It is in this place that all honor lies—the only currency of any value at this moment—and that every man covets.
The moment breaks and the group surges at the obstacle without instruction or order. If it were a wall with machine gun nests the young men would throw themselves at it, tearing at each other to be the first to fall. They do not march, they scramble in a fever pitch to seize the honor of turning around to help the next man over. Then, a strange thing happens: there is a log jam at the top. Not because the almost-Marines cannot get over and reach the objective—a flag, or some such—but because they have forgotten what the initial objective was. The boys are crowding at the top because they are fighting to be the one to help the next up.
What a strange sight! With the objective within their grasp, they couldn’t care less! Dirt-caked hands reach down to pull up comrades by their wrists, the sweaty, grime-filled creases in the helped man’s wrists coming clean with each pull. Hands wiped and a head of steam taken, and finally over the wall goes another. But the ambitious man on top of the wall remains—the feeling of dragging the squad on his back too precious, too human, too Marine, to relinquish. Victory is theirs, but more so to the man on top of the wall—for his selfish pursuit of selflessness has not gone unnoticed, and he stands just a bit taller for it.
He looks to the sky and the goddess nods approvingly. He pounds his chest and beams.
--Ten years pass.--
A rainy Memorial Day dawns. Long dead lies the man’s hero, the one who held his hand all those years ago. Gone the way of the grandfather: to be set prominently on the mantle, or in a comfortable chair for no one to see. Tucked away in a lockbox under a father’s bed, or scrawled in a tattoo on an aunt’s arm—under her habitual long sleeves. Always present, often talked about, rarely examined.
Far off in one corner, the Greek goddess sits with her legs crossed, hands at ease and that same smile on her face. She whispers that it was all worth it. The man doesn’t argue, but neither does he agree. The sine curve of pride and shame has completed a full cycle, and sits painfully in the middle: containing both all and none of each. She starts again with “In Flanders Fields” but he cuts her short and asks her instead to recite “Dulce et Decorum Est.” This time she smiles a different, sadder smile. She nods and walks to the next room, where a wide-eyed young boy takes her hand and blushes.
Somewhere, a gazebo man finishes his speech. The hotdog line marches slowly on.