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2021-06-16

In that opening sentence of ^The Aeneid, ̄ the poet Virgil begins his tale of soldiers. Some 2,000 years later, the survivors of the worst tragedy of American history began to be commemorated on what we now call Memorial Day.

In the 1870s, it was a walk to the cemetery where the graves of Union dead were decorated with flowers. Memorial Day is now a long weekend of crowded roads to the beach, babies slathered in sunscreen and that particular orgy of patriotic display that is more a collective shout of ^hooray for our side ̄ than a thoughtful pause to consider the men and arms about which we sing.

War fascinates us with its specter of men, and now women, who do things that are absolutely contrary to what modern society says we should do: They put themselves at risk of death in service to the nation.

We don¨t generally reward violence, but in war we demand it. And if we are not careful, we honor war rather than those very few who suffered through what war really is and suffered what it does to people.

It¨s easy to see how our fascination so often goes wrong. Properly understood, Memorial Day honors the sacrifice of the few for the many. The people who have gone to war when they were called are worthy of our thanks and respect because they gave of themselves. We honor these people not because they were killers, but because they gave themselves up to be killed.

Encouraging the young to offer themselves up is a very old idea indeed.? Greek solders were armed with shields and spears. The shield was heavy. A man could not run away with it. However, it was large enough to carry his body if he died in combat.

^H tan h epi tas, ̄ ?Spartan mothers told their young sons as they gestured toward the shield. ^With this, or on it. ̄

Memorial Day speeches often get this all wrong. U.S. Army Gen. Lucian Truscott got it right when he dedicated a cemetery full of dead Americans. In a book written by World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin, the general is quoted as saying that the men buried there didn¨t give their lives, but had them taken away.

^He turned his back on the assembled windbags and sparklers, ̄ Mauldin wrote, ^and talked to the crosses in the cemetery, quietly, apologizing, and then walked away without looking around. ̄

We live in a time of unbridled aggression. Instead of a honk of the horn and perhaps a middle finger, unhappy drivers too often whip out handguns and shoot one another, sometimes to death. War, to those haven¨t seen it, appears to be a good thing. Death and destruction are called the ^price of freedom, ̄ and the more violent your rhetoric, the stronger you must be.

This divides us, and that¨s nothing new. Even this holiday, which was not celebrated in the South until recently, was long called ^Yankee Memorial Day. ̄ Confederates honored their dead and lauded their side on April 26.

Memorial Day can¨t be co-opted by the far right as a celebration of spilling blood in the name of America. Neither can it be an occasion for collective guilt for all the death and horror that history has left us with.

That¨s all wrong. It¨s also profoundly disrespectful to the men and women who have served, and especially to those who died.

On Memorial Day, we honor our war dead because of their sacrifice. We should not let that slip into a notion of honoring war itself or the governments that sometimes stupidly slaughter young people.

Amid the patriotic music and speeches about patriotism in war (often made by people who don¨t know war), let¨s turn away from the glamor of aggression, and remember and honor the dead themselves, from the GIs who were gunned down on the beach at Normandy to the wounded who drowned in shell holes at the Battle of the Somme in World War I, the 18-year-olds killed by punji sticks in Vietnam and those who died in the desert sands of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This weekend, let¨s honor our fallen soldiers for sacrificing their lives, and honor ourselves by thoughtfully remembering what those sacrifices really mean. It may not be as much fun as drinking beer at the beach and congratulating ourselves for being Americans, but it¨s much more important.

Frances Coleman is a former editorial page editor of the Mobile Press-Register. Email her at fcoleman1953@gmail.com and ^like ̄ her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/prfrances.