There was always a parade which followed a short route to the memorial where there would be invocation and benediction, and Taps played, first at the small monument, then by a lucky and nervous high school trumpeter somewhere hidden and muffled. It was a sterling effect in the tiny village nestled in the heart of Southwest Pennsylvania, where Washington and Braddock fought, where the names of towns and streets recall British and French colonial heritage.
Just before Taps, a rifle salute was executed by the VFW, old men in navy caps with gold embroidery. These men made it home to march behind their banner and pay tribute to those either buried at the ancient cemetery on the hill overlooking the town, or lost, or buried in the land in which they fell.
Even then, there was a good war, one fought for freedom and humanity, and there were bad wars, merely fought. But I suspect, although I do not know, that those to whom we are obligated and indebted would quietly scoff at the notion.
This is my problem. I have little ability to rank death, or to decide which death is noble and which life is wasted. We are all ultimately redeemed or condemned, and it comes down to more than circumstance. Should we quantify the difference between a dead veteran who volunteered and one who was drafted? Do we really mean or want to do this? This can only lead to a separate and sickening calculus in which a listing of our dead is accounted in a cost-and-benefit analysis or weighed against the foe as in a box score.
Honoring our dead warriors reminds us that we live in a protective and indulgent society, where young people are habitually thrown to danger in foreign lands to protect domestic prerogatives. In the coming years, it is at least possible, though not certain, that we may all be called to fight, that our experience with war will be more personal. The safe distance between soldier and civilian will likely close, as we assumed it would after the attacks of 2001.
Not that this would make any difference. Humanity still has some ways to go until war becomes obsolete. The last thing we need is to allow ourselves to hide our eyes from this day, to avoid the casualty reports or pretend that there will not be more to memorialize next year. The next to the last thing we need is to convince ourselves that there is nothing to fight over, that fighting is never warranted. What we do need is to get in the fight, to enlist in heart, mind and deed and not leave it to our dead to justify our living.