In 1989, the movie, “Born on the Fourth of July” was released. It was based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a Marine Corps veteran who became a paraplegic from a bullet during a firefight in Vietnam. The movie opens up with a July 4th parade, probably in the early 1950s, with Kovic sitting on his father’s shoulders. A World War II veteran is filmed at first from the chest up as he marches with a group of other veterans. The camera shifts and you see the missing leg, but it is the thousand yard stare that is so memorable. This sets the scene for everything that follows and once again reminds us of the words of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, that war is hell.
On Memorial Day we remember and reflect. We honor those who served our country from its founding right up to today, who left it all on the battlefield and never had the opportunity to raise a family, to pursue a career, to enjoy a life that too many of us take for granted. There once was a time, from 1940-1973, when we had a draft, and many young men from all walks of life wore the uniform of this country. It was the great leveler, and those who served during those years learned that it didn’t matter who you were, you went through the same training, hardships, and wartime experience.
We also honor families that experienced the loss of a husband father, son, and brother (and the women who came later with the same familial connections). They too deserve to be recognized and honored on Memorial Day. The late Diane McDowell was born in 1943 when victory in World War II was not yet assured. She did not know her father. She only knew that he was a World War II Army lieutenant who served in the tank corps. He and her mother were separated for reasons known only to history. In 1968, Diane learned that Lieutenant Conrad McDowell was in a Veterans hospital several states away.
Diane rented a car and drove to the hospital. Lt. McDowell had to be convinced that Diane was his daughter. They spoke on the lawn for several hours and agreed to establish a relationship. On July 4, 1968, only a few weeks later, Lt. McDowell was found dead in a hotel room near the hospital. He died 23 years after the war’s end, but he was no less a casualty of the war, and Diane and her brother, who grew up without ever knowing their father, were also casualties. They too deserve to be honored along with countless thousands of others who have their own stories that vary only in degree from Diane’s.
War does not end when the last shot is fired. For many---and their families---it is only the beginning, the beginning of a life of horrors in too many ways to count. As life goes on and other generations take their place in society, they have no connection to those who preceded them. Names are forgotten or lost with the passage of time. Veterans groups, to their great credit, are probably the biggest reason that Memorial Day fulfills that promise to never forget.
Those who answered the call and served their country came from every walk of life. I think of the likes of Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin York of World War I. Sgt. York was a farmer who opposed violence, but he served with distinction when he was called upon, and returned home to resume his life. So many like him did only what they were asked to do in our country’s hour of need. General Douglas MacArthur, in his famous DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY speech to the corps of cadets at West Point on May 12, 1962, said, “This does not mean that you are warmongers. On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’”
I was fortunate to have served on Swift Boats in Vietnam with fellow officers Kenny Cozart, Mike Gann, Shelton White, Bob Scattergood, John O’Neil, Rock Harmon, and too many others to count. One thing that never mattered, was never discussed, was politics. We never openly identified with a political party or political position that I can recall. It is probably safe to say that the overwhelming number of service members throughout history could have cared less. What mattered was whether your fellow shipmate, soldier, marine, airman had your back. We honor the more than 50 sailors who served on Swift Boats who were killed in action, and the four who remain missing in action. They are forever on patrol.
In my opinion, no Supreme Court decision better defines who we are as Americans than West Virginia vs. Barnette (1943) written by Justice Robert Jackson. It clarified for all time the freedom of conscience embodied in the First Amendment. Memorial Day should be the great unifier. Diversity of political and religious beliefs should be respected and protected. As Americans, we are stronger for it. We honor those who died in war and their families who also bore the brunt war by remembering that. As Justice Jackson said in Barnett, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”