Instead of grieving for thousands of war dead, Americans...

COPING: MORTAL MATTERS

May 27, 1991|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

Instead of grieving for thousands of war dead, Americans are celebrating the safe return of Desert Storm veterans. The fact that it could have been otherwise gives this Memorial Day special significance.

This national holiday began as an occasion for decorating the graves of Civil War soldiers. After World War I the day became a time to remember the lives lost in later wars as well. As years passed, the commemoration outgrew the lingering partisan feelings that marked it as a "Union" holiday shunned in Southern states.

Memorial Day is an occasion for what sociologists call "collective remembering," a process that nurtures a sense of continuity between the past, the present and the future. By honoring those who have given their lives in the country's service, the day is a way of linking the living with earlier times. And by celebrating the bravery and sacrifice shown by the nation's military dead, the commemoration fosters the ideals that help ensure the country's future.

This year, Americans are acutely aware of what words like "bravery" and "sacrifice" actually entail. For the men and women of Desert Storm, those words meant a numbing daily grind of hardships and hard work, tension, anxiety and fear -- all mixed with the tedium of waiting for something to happen and wondering if anything ever would. Different kinds of hardships shaped the days of families at home, but the same worries shadowed their lives.

That's true of every war. But it's not always the case that those fears go unfulfilled.

This year, having confronted war, Americans can approach Memorial Day with a stronger sense of what it means for a nation to remember its war dead and why that is important. As the country gives thanks for so many safe homecomings, it also pauses to remember those who didn't return -- from the Persian Gulf, from Vietnam and from all the other conflicts this nation has engaged in.

For a country that prides itself on looking forward, not backward, Memorial Day can be an occasion to think about things we're not always comfortable with.

Any cemetery can prompt deep thoughts about life and death, but that's especially true at battlefield cemeteries. Anyone who has ever gazed over the acres of neat rows of graves of young people who died before their time gets a strong sense wastefulness of war -- and of the democracy of death.

However and whenever it comes, death peels away all distinctions; ranks and medals lose their significance in the face of mortality.

Few monuments have captured this feeling better than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and this stark granite wall filled with names has become one of the most visited spots in Washington, D.C.

Like grave markers, those rows of names carry a power that is hard to describe. But the powerful feeling the wall engenders was not evident to critics when the design was first unveiled. The wall was criticized as a "gash of shame" and a symbol of the nation's defeat.

Those charges aren't heard much anymore. Too many people have visited the memorial and felt its capacity to help a nation come to terms with the legacy of a painful war. One testament to the design is the fact that a replica, complete with all 58,175 names, is now touring the country.

The Vietnam Memorial illustrates the importance of collective remembering and how it can heal the wounds of war. For a nation that has been spared a repeat of the pain of Vietnam, that act of remembering is no less important this Memorial Day.

Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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