Remembering the Killed in Action

Each American Legion meeting begins with a remembrance of prisoners of war, those missing in action, and, finally, those killed in action. The words are sobering and honorific. The latter are described as those who gave their all on a field of honor.

So often at those moments, I find myself mentally shaking my head and asking silently, “Why don’t we tell it like it is?”

I remind myself that the words used are intended to inspire us, not horrify us. We need to remember and honor those who died in the service of their country.

And yet . . . I find myself wondering how many of those present realize and understand just how grisly combat is. There’s nothing pretty or uplifting about it. Anyone who has been through it has sustained soul damage, some—like me—more than others.

I wrote about the contrast between the way we honor our combat dead and the conditions under which they died in Last of the Annamese. The protagonist, Chuck Griffin, is remembering his son who died in combat in Vietnam. Chuck himself has seen combat. He remembers sadly:

“‘He died with honor.” That’s what his commanding officer had written. Sounded so dignified, so orderly. Evoked pictures of young heroes standing tall in beams of sunlight with the flag unfurled next to them while the strains of martial music swelled far away. Chuck could feel good about it, proud even, as long as he didn’t have to smell the burning flesh, didn’t have to hear the screeching, didn’t have to see the dismembered bodies and guts spattered across the battlefield. He shook his head. The lies we tell ourselves.”

I write about the gruesomeness of combat because I want people to know. Before we decide to go to war, let’s understand what we are asking our young men and women to go through. Then we can make our decisions wisely.

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