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Sacrifice

05/28/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) This morning, commentator Vic Henningsen has some thoughts on the meaning of Memorial Day.

(HENNINGSEN) For years on Memorial Day I'd call the veterans in our family to thank them for their service. Over time those conversations achieved a kind of ritual status: they'd thank me for the call; I'd hear some well-worn stories; laugh at some old jokes and then there'd be a pause. The pause, I learned, was what the conversation was really about. They were remembering others, those who didn't return, contemplating again whatever it was - fate or luck or something - that spared them when so many didn't make it.

They kept the bitter memories at an arm's length. The World War I ace would say, "We lost more pilots to equipment failure than we did in combat, so I stayed on good terms with my French mechanic, Georges. When the biplane was ready, he made the first flight, sitting in my lap. I took my chances with the Germans - never with the equipment." The World War II bomber pilot would reflect on the assembly-line style of aircrew training: "When it was our turn to fly to England, we flew - ready or not. The only thing we recognized between Omaha and Iceland was Lake Erie. Our navigation was so bad that when we landed in the fog in Scotland we came out of the plane with our hands up - we thought we were in occupied Europe." The sailor recalled stepping off his ship into a wild V-J Day celebration in Capetown - and regaining consciousness in a cable car going up Table Mountain three days later.

But every so often the real story came through: somber memories of the death of squadron-mates in dogfights over the trenches of France; of the co-pilot killed while nursing a shot-up B-24 back to base; of an eighteen-year-old watching doomed sailors in life rafts float past on the winter sea, waving at ships forbidden to stop lest they too be torpedoed. And again, the unspoken question: "Why them and not me?"

It's a question we pose in a different way this Memorial Day, as we contemplate why such a small minority of American families bear the brunt of our current war. It's easy enough to say "We support the troops." - not so easy to say with a straight face, "We share the burden." We could do worse on this holiday than consider what meaning the concept of shared sacrifice has today - in a society where it sometimes seems to have all but disappeared.

"Thanks for remembering us," they'd say at the end of the call - and I knew they weren't talking about themselves. This Memorial Day I'll think of them, of my own peers who died in Vietnam, and of a former student killed in Baghdad in February. And I'll offer again those simple words that seem so little in comparison to what they did: "Thank you for your service."

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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