On Monday morning, a few hundred people gathered at Evergreen Cemetery for a traditional Memorial Day ceremony. In a brief keynote speech, Coast Guard Adm. Thomas Ostebo thanked us for taking time the time on a gorgeous sunny day to honor our nation’s fallen soldiers. Sadly, the relatively light attendance suggests most Americans are quite comfortable in their emotional distance from our wars.
We’ve lost more than 6,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq since October 2001. It’s a figure that shies away from attention compared to the 50,000-plus who died in both Vietnam and Korea, or the 405,000 who sacrificed their lives during World War II.
But those wars are racing toward ancient history like the American Civil War and World War I. As they do, our connection with the dead leans toward the superficiality of statistical artifacts. Lost are each soldier’s personal stories that make up the true complexity of the war’s national narrative.
Our personal bond to the dead of today’s wars is lean as well. There are but 22 Alaskans among the fallen, including Tech. Sgt. Leslie D. Williams, a graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School who was killed this past January. We’ve largely been spared the grief that wars seek to bring home.
What we aren’t distant from is the reason America went to war in 2001 — that horrific day in September 2001 that “changed the world”. Most of us can recall exactly where we when we first learned our nation had been attacked by terrorists. But what is it we remember?
On the Sunday in May following the killing of Osama bin Laden, Bishop Edward J. Burns described his memories of 9/11 in a commentary published by the Juneau Empire.
“Is it possible that 10 years of terror has ended?” Burns asked as he recalled the horror he felt while watching the Twin Towers fall on television.
The most obvious meaning to Burns’ question is there may not be any more terrorists threatening America. But have Americans lived in fear of one man for 10 years? Did we lose 6,000 soldiers in pursuit of one insane criminal? The answer to these questions should be a resounding “no.”
Why then would Burns pose such a rhetorical question for us? Perhaps he was expressing relief from the personal terror he felt on the morning of 9/11. He witnessed the buildings collapse with a colleague whose son worked at the World Trade Center. And he was closer to the horror because he was living in Washington, D.C., the second city targeted by the terrorists.
Burns acknowledges his anguish was vastly different than that felt by his friend who didn’t learn for many hours that his son had been away from New York that day. Similarly, the psychological trauma that raced across the country wasn’t the same for all Americans. People living in New York City and D.C. experienced the terror at a much more personal level. The national question “why do they hate us” was quite real to them, compared to those of us in Alaska, Florida and even on the east side of Long Island a hundred miles away from Ground Zero.
We like to think of ourselves as one indivisible nation of people. But is it possible we’ve extended that notion so far as to imagine the national narrative of 9/11 can be the basis of our individual psychological trauma? Have we wounded our memories by clinging to a mantle of victimhood that isn’t ours? Can we sincerely pay respect to our nation’s fallen soldiers without coming to terms with the uniqueness of our individual anger and fears?
Distancing ourselves from human cost of war is choosing a form of forgetfulness that undermines our collective psychological health. We can’t be better human beings by forgetting our pain and sorrow. Doing so paves the future with the mistakes of our past.
Memorial Day should be about mindful remembering that our soldiers gave up their life story for us to go on. It will bring us into contact with the human cost of war and the fragile nature of life itself. We need to live these moments to be able to heal the wounds hiding in the depths of our personal memories.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.