You’re standing in formation, at close interval (dress right…DRESS!) with your entire battalion, your body locked and your eyes forward (don’t lock your knees!). You hear the buzz of the microphone in the silence between the speakers, and you try your hardest not to stare at that bleak and tragic monument front and center. For once, while standing in formation, you don’t wonder how much hotter/colder it could possibly get, and your mind doesn’t wander to your Xbox back in your barracks room.
Rifles, with bayonets stabbed into a sandbag above a pair of boots. A helmet perched on the buttstock and a set of dog tags dangling as proof of what was life.
The connotation of those symbols invites the viewers into the world of warriors who would die for a cause.
Music is played, families cry, speeches are given, final salutes are rendered.
Each of us, were we to speak into the microphone ourselves, would likely do the same thing. Keeping in mind that civilians do this as well, you know that you would speak only the best words of your fallen brothers and sisters (regardless of their veracity). Never would you speak ill of them on that day. We would create Facebook pages, and every fallen service member would be portrayed as an angel taken from this earth too quickly. Memorials would be shared on Instagram on the anniversary of their deaths, complete with pictures of weeping eagles and burning candles.
But let’s be honest with ourselves, and do so without dishonoring the dead. Yes, sometimes a few actual Ultimate Warriors are the ones to die, those one-in-a-hundred who should have been born in an age of gladiators and Vikings. I do believe I have met more than one, and I can honestly say that I have been strengthened by my mere memories of them. However, the guys who are killed can just as easily be regular dudes, and sometimes even worthless fucks.
That doucheknuckle who owed everyone in his platoon at least a hundred dollars? At the memorial, he’s the reincarnation of Chesty “Knifehands” Puller.
That perv whom you know for a fact had over a terabyte of probably underage porn? He gets remembered as a perfect combination of innocence and tactical brilliance.
The retard everyone had pegged as the dude who would bite it first? You know, the one who couldn’t even chamber a round in his SAW, or couldn’t remember the mission of a rifle squad, or who kept spilling his dip-spit bottles in the barracks? In public, everyone will dig to China to find something good to say about him. He’ll become what John Basilone wanted to be.
Reinvention of the dead is a tradition so embedded in our mental makeup that we never question it. Why do we do this? Why recreate a person after they are killed, particularly in combat?
I suspect that part of this has to do with an inner desire to make the reason for their deaths matter, or to create a reason in the first place. We’ve all given sweat and blood in that war, and want to know that it had a purpose. Making a fallen brother out to be well-nigh perfect may be a cathartic action; we tell ourselves that a great person died, and therefore the cause for which they perished is great.
Maybe we just don’t want to disappoint their families. What parent wants to hear that their son couldn’t go a single day without jacking it in the port-a-john, or that their daughter was a piece of shit in a firefight? Maybe in our heart of hearts, we know that guy was worthless, or worse, just normal. Part of us cries out at the injustice of an average memory. We hope that our positive words can make him into something memorable.
Maybe we fear our own death and mediocrity, and hope that someone will do the same for us. Whatever our motives, it’s normal. I doubt that it’s even a bad thing. Early in the war, a teammate of mine died in Iraq. He was the first of many. While he was alive, I remember that I really fucking hated him, and that he was the kind of DefCon Level 5 Dick (yes, with a capital “D”) that made Josef Stalin look like SpongeBob wrapped in a blanket of unicorn dreams. He wasn’t a coward, worthless on missions, or bad at his job. Just a fucking asshole. I remember not liking him, all the way until he died of a severe case of double-stacked AT mines. Suddenly, his memory pulled a reverse-Kafka, and did a metamorphosis into something amazing.
The passing of a brother or sister in combat is a type of purification to our kind. Not the false-religion, “I’m going to heaven because I’ve served my time in hell”“ bullshit. I’m not speaking of the theological or eternal washing of sins. (Just as an aside, you’re probably not going to heaven if your only claim is doing a four-year enlistment, with one year of that spent eating at a DFAC in a desert country. Quit making those stupid memes, because that theology isn’t in any religious texts.)
I speak of the images of the dead in our minds. Death washes away the bad and mundane, filters out the bad habits that pissed us off in life. In our struggle to find the good in this fallen world, that is all we see in them. It happens in the civilian world as well, but I believe it is on a different level.
We each run the risk of worshipping them, which can be damaging. It seems that the ghost of a perfect warrior can be exceptionally hard to bear for the living, and slows down the healing process. Remembering that each one of the dead was in fact human can lessen this weight.
Also, we have to make an intentional effort not to carry the dead. If I carry the ghosts of three of my brothers, and each of them carries three ghosts, and so on, how heavy will my burden become? Remember the good, and cherish their realistic humanity.
That teammate of mine who died? I honestly can’t remember a single reason that I hated him, though I remember that he wasn’t perfect. Over a decade of seeing the same smiling picture of his face has washed away any negative feelings I could have harbored against him. A few years later, my wife gave birth to a baby boy. I named my son after that man. His image in my mind was purified in a strange way by his death in combat. All I remember are the good things, and it’s funny how many there are when I try to find them.
That kind of beauty extracted from what used to be an average man is wonderful. A guy who used to be a struggling student in high school, or a shitty gambler, or a creeper with no social skills becomes something much more in our minds. If nothing else, I am thankful for this, and for the war that so had the capability to change my memories of a man.
Those rifles, boots, helmets, and dog tags now each symbolize a person who will never grow old. We will never have to see them years down the road and be surprised at how fat they’ve gotten. We won’t see that slow slide into depression after their marriages fail. There won’t be those cryptic social media posts that make us wonder, “Is that a cry for help, or is he just wasted?” We won’t feel the sharp sadness mixed with shame if they take the coward’s way out by suck-starting a pistol. We’ll never see them neglected in a nursing home, shitting themselves as family members conveniently forget about them.
They will always be as we last remember them; holding a rifle, wearing the uniform of their country, at their peak, young, and as strong as they’ve ever been.