Memorial Day: Sacrifice and Celebration

My…err…late thoughts on Memorial Day:

So, Memorial Day got me to thinking…which, I guess, is what it is supposed to do…

Given that Memorial Day is a holiday to honor the fallen, is it truly a time to be quiet and sad?  Or is it a time to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of those who gave so much?  To celebrate all they accomplished, and the triumphs they won?

Do I place a flag on a grave  in wordless silence?  Or do I shout from the rooftops everything those fallen soldiers — known and unknown — did to change the world?

Is it both?  Crap, can it even be both?

*sigh*

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to my musing, let alone a correct one…

An example, from the Naval History side of my life:  the various land and naval battles of Guadalcanal.

To the almost hundred thousand men who fought at Guadalcanal — counting both the ground and naval forces of the US and Japan — the place, and the battles that took place on land and sea, was nothing less than the most miserable, ass-end of the universe imaginable.  It was Hell on Earth…and it changed the outcome of WW2.

Look, we in the US often talk about the Battle of Midway as the turning point of the war, but that’s not strictly true.  Midway broke the Japanese momentum, true, but all that victory truly accomplished was to put things in tight balance between the USN and the IJN.  It was victory in the miserable, muddy, shitty, violent, and deadly hell of Guadalcanal that gave the US the momentum and initiative that she held throughout the rest of the Pacific War.

On the US side, roughly 1,600 Marines and 5,500 sailors died on that island or in the waters surrounding it.  On the Japanese side that number rose to well over 30,000 dead.

There is a lot to mourn there.  There is far too much blood and sacrifice, far too much bravery and cowardice, far too much….war…to sum up in one short blog post.

Those men, on the Godforsaken island, thought at the time their lives meant nothing.

for years afterwards, they thought the deaths meant nothing.

Hell, even now, even 75 years later, the US Marines still blame the US Navy for many of those deaths…just as the US Navy still performs full military honors when a warship passes over the dozens of wrecks littering the floor of Iron Bottom Sound…

A lot to mourn indeed…but there is a lot to celebrate, as well.

Had the US lost at Guadalcanal — had the Japanese commanders and forces there won that battle, and moved on to fight elsewhere — the entire war would very likely have ended differently.  In that instance, the odds of the entire Pacific War ending in a negotiated peace that left a large part of the “Greater East Asian Co-Propserity Sphere” intact and under the domination of the Japanese Army* would have grown astronomically.

*For the unhistorically minded, the Imperial Japanese Army was the driving force of Japan’s militarism and the ruthless dominance with which the conquered territories were ruled, while the Navy was the more professional and moderate service…

The men at Guadalcanal men suffered and died.  They died of bullets.  They died of malaria.  They starved to death.  They drowned.  They burned to death.  They died in every shitty, painful, horrifying way you can imagine…but they died for something.

Their sacrifices call for quiet, and for tears, yes…but they call also for celebration.  They call for honor and for pride.

And that is the heart of my question.  Look, I’m a historian by training and outlook, so how can I overlook the consequences of death and sacrifice?  How can I only mourn when I know to what outcomes those sacrifices lead?

I can, by the way, change the example of Guadalcanal for just about every nation and war in history…

The blood spent at Sekigahara made modern Japan…

The blood at Teutoberg…

The blood at the gates of Vienna…

The blood at Stalingrad…

Antietam…Leipzig…the Somme…Waterloo…

We mourn those who fell, and we should.  But we should celebrate, as well.  Celebrate all that they were.  Celebrate all that they gave.  Celebrate, when you get right down to it, all that they meant.

father-told-once-honor-duty-kia-military-army-demotivational-posters-1409196587So, to all those who gave so much — both the living and the dead — I say this: Happy Memorial Day.

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