Op-Ed: Think Of War On Memorial Day, Not Beach For retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, the meaning of Memorial Day has changed from casual to tragic. His son was killed three years ago while serving in Iraq. Bacevich takes to task Americans who see Memorial Day simply as a harbinger of summer, rather than a time to contemplate the reality of war.
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Op-Ed: Think Of War On Memorial Day, Not Beach

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Op-Ed: Think Of War On Memorial Day, Not Beach

Op-Ed: Think Of War On Memorial Day, Not Beach

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And now the Opinion Page.

For most Americans, the last Monday in May marks a long weekend, maybe a family barbecue and the unofficial start of summer. For many, Memorial Day holds more significance as it commemorates the men and women who lost their lives in battle. Put retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich in that latter category. Three years ago, his son was killed while serving in Iraq.

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, he wrote, rather than contemplating the reality of what American wars, past or present, have wrought, we choose to look away, preferring the beach, the ballgame and the prospect of another summer.

Today, we want to hear from those of you who those of you, about who you remember this Memorial Day. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Colonel Bacevich joins us now on the phone from his home in Walpole, Massachusetts. He served in the Army during the Vietnam War and is now professor of history and international relations at Boston University. Nice to have you back in the program today.

Col. ANDREW J. BACEVICH (Retired, U.S. Army; Professor of History and International Relations, Boston University): Thanks very much.

CONAN: And you write that you used to think of Memorial Day as just a free day.

Col. BACEVICH: Well, when I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, we certainly didn't travel to cemeteries. We had barbecues and took the day off. Even for the most of the time when I was a serving soldier, that was a non-duty day, and that typically meant that I'd just go to the office and take care of all the things that I'd fallen behind on. And I say that with some embarrassment because one would think that a serving soldier would be acutely conscious of the sacrifices made by other soldiers, but at least for me that was not the case.

CONAN: Especially at a time of war.

Col. BACEVICH: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Then, things changed three years ago.

Col. BACEVICH: Well, that's right. I mean, I don't like to talk too much about my son's death, but the fact of the matter is that that certainly gave me and my family an entirely different perspective on what Memorial Day was all about and I think reminded us of what the purpose of this holiday was from the outset, which was not to have barbecues and go off to the beach.

CONAN: Not only to remember those who died in battle but the reasons they died.

Col. BACEVICH: Well, exactly right. And, I mean, by profession, I am a writer and teacher these days, and much of what I write about deals with American wars. And I think, just speaking for myself, that over time, I have come to have a perspective on American war which views them as difficult, ambiguous, problematic aspects in our history rather than simply heroic episodes about defending American freedom. It's more complicated than that.

CONAN: You wrote, if I can quote you, "Vietnam inaugurated an era in which the United States has routinely misunderstood and repeatedly misused military power. Even as political authorities sent U.S. forces into action with ever greater frequencies, decisive results - what we used to call victory - became more elusive. From Beirut and Bosnia to Iraq and Somalia, the troops served and sacrificed while expending huge sums of taxpayer money. How their exertions were helping to keep Americans free became increasingly difficult to discern."

Col. BACEVICH: Well, you know, I mean, we the other sort of the big event that's going on right at this moment in addition to the continuation of American wars is this catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico with the BP oil spill.

And you ask yourself how much money we've spent in trying to pacify the greater Middle East, trying to determine the course of events in that part of world, and then ask yourself how much money the United States government has spent in order to anticipate and deal with these problems much closer to home, which do, in fact, have adverse effects on the way we live. And I am struck by the disparity. Hundreds of billions of dollars to support wars on the other side of the world, and by comparison puny resources to deal with the threats that happen right here on our own backyard.

CONAN: And Colonel Bacevich, I don't want to pry - and tell me to shut up if I am - but can you tell us a little bit about what you and your family did this morning?

Col. BACEVICH: Well, yesterday we went to my son's gravesite and we, as we do from time to time, we did a little bit of landscaping. We removed some flowers that had outlived their time and put in some new flowers. This morning, I went back by myself and just spent a little time there.

CONAN: And your questions about U.S. foreign policy and the uses of military power, I'm sure those don't come to the point of questioning the men and the women who have served in wars and have had to pay the price.

Col. BACEVICH: Heavens, no. I mean, service to country, whether in military service or other forms, is tremendously honorable and can be very rewarding and satisfying as well. It's not up to those who serve in uniform to decide when and how they will serve. They take an oath and they are bound by that oath. And quite frankly, the particular cause or the outcome of a particular effort, to my mind, has absolutely no bearing on the honor that attaches itself to their service.

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, thank you very much for your time today. And again, we - we're sorry for your loss.

Col. BACEVICH: Thank you.

CONAN: Colonel Andrew Bacevich, retired from the United States Army, the author of the forthcoming book "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War." We'd like to hear who you remember on this Memorial Day. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Send us an email: talk@npr.org. We'll go to Ian(ph). Ian with us from Mentor in Ohio.

IAN (Caller): Yes, sir. How you doing today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

IAN: All right. Excellent. I'd just like to comment - I'm a former Marine. I was medically retired earlier this year due to my injury sustained overseas, Marine Corps infantry, three deployments in Iraq. I lost 12 Marines in my three deployments. And, you know, for veterans, I'd like to say that every day is Memorial Day for us and, you know, we're always thinking and trying to remember our fallen. And I got to tell you, though, this - I remember Friday, I was in the car and was listening to a local radio station, and all I heard about for this weekend was how, you know, there's this sale on charcoal and these grills out here and it's going to be a beautiful weekend for the kids and everybody in the family and all that stuff. And I just heard a lot of plugs for consumer products. And then at the very end I hear, oh, and let's not forget our fallen veterans.

And I was just irate. I mean, you have 364 days to forget. You know, this weekend is supposed to be the weekend you don't forget. You know, why should you be reminded not to forget? I just got - it just hit too close to home. I'm still not at peace with - you know, I have PTSD and I have a traumatic brain injury. And I still, you know, I'm still not in a healthy place post-Marine Corps yet. And, you know, so I didn't react very well to that. But I'd just like to, I don't know, make that comment that I was pretty angry when I heard that.

CONAN: We hear you, Ian. Thank you.

IAN: Yeah, thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. Good luck to you.

IAN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's some emails, we got this from Dawn(ph) in Minnesota in Grand Marais, I think, Minnesota. I want to lift up my uncles, Bruce Davison(ph) and Lawrence Grayson(ph), who I never met because they were both killed in the Pacific theater long before I was born.

This from Chrissy(ph) in - she writes, my grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Barry(ph), who passed away earlier this month at the age of 94. He served as communications officer in the Air Force in World War II and survived the Bataan Death March as well as the bombings of two Japanese hell ships. He saw the darkest side of humanity but never once did his faith, patriotism or love of mankind waver.

This from Linda(ph): This morning, I listened to a program on NPR called "The Pacific." And since I have been remembering my father, Don McAtee(ph), an Army private who fought in the Pacific at the end, during the retaking of Manila on Luzon. Dad never talked about the war at all. But we never went camping or to the beach. He said that he'd seen enough sand and dirt. Thank you for your program today.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Deborah(ph). Deborah with us from Wellesley, Massachusetts.

DEBORAH (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DEBORAH: I would like (technical difficulty) my nephew Matthew (technical difficulty) who died in Iraq five years ago this June.

CONAN: And there was just a cut out of the phone - his name again?

DEBORAH: His name is Matthew Couto(ph). He was killed in action in Iraq five years ago, June 27th this month.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about him.

DEBORAH: We are a large family. And my brother, his dad, (technical difficulty) in Vietnam, wounded. And my nephew had that in his blood and chose to follow that and was killed less than five months after going to Iraq.

CONAN: Five months. Well, at least he's remembered. It's small enough. It's small enough. I'm sorry, Deborah.

DEBORAH: All right. Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. This is an email we have from a Dave(ph), captain, U.S. Air Force, retired in Baltimore. This Memorial Day, I'm thinking of the 30-some infantrymen from the 1st Air Cavalry whom I saw near the entrance of Tan Son Nhut Air Base in January 1968 following the Tet Offensive by the VC in Saigon. The young men perched on top of an elephant-like armored carrier, were fully armed and preparing to repel the VC attack in the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut. I was on my bike with nothing but my uniform hat and second lieutenant single bar and ready to enter the relative safety of TSN Air Base. I hope most, if not all, I saw on that armored vehicle survived that day and the remainder of their stay in Vietnam and are able to enjoy their Memorial Day, hopefully with some good anti-war activists, as I plan to do.

We're talking with people who remember people on Memorial Day. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Lou(ph), Lou with us from Jacksonville.

LOU (Caller): Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Hello, Lou, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

LOU: Thank you. I remembered, today, my uncle. His name is Louis(ph) Towson. It's the same as Towson, Maryland. And I remember growing up being in various members of the family's homes and they would show me this picture, one of these sepia pictures of an airmen, and they'd say, that's - Lou, that's your Uncle Louis. He died in the war. That's your Uncle Louis. He died in the war. And my name is Louis also. I was named after him.

And I realized when I got to be about 35 years old that I had sort of come up to the conclusion that if he had not died, I would not have lived. And that added kind of a different layer to my life. And I subsequently became a clergyman, and a lot of religious themes are sort of woven into that realization.

Now, it's not true, I don't think. But the idea of my life being a kind of extension of his life, a continuation of his life, I think, is something that maybe a lot of people can relate to. But I had a very special kind of experience with my uncle in this way.

CONAN: Felt a special responsibility to do something maybe?

LOU: Yes. I became a clergyman and I've sort of carried I think that contributed to that sense of responsibility and so forth.

CONAN: Lou, thank you for helping us remember Lou.

LOU: Okay. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

LOU: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Email from Anne(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Today, I'm remembering my grandfather who was a POW during World War II. He never really talked about it, but he emitted an inner strength that I know is what helped him cope during those 18 months.

Let's go next to this is Rosemary(ph), Rosemary from Tows County in New Mexico.

ROSEMARY (Caller): Yes, I'm calling because I'd like for us to remember everyone who died on 9/11, and in particular, I got to know the family of Craig Amundson, who was killed at the Pentagon on that day. He was an adjutant to the only general who was killed. And I would just like to remember that there were many people who have died and it's in their own way in service to our country who did not die in combat, in a war zone. I'm old enough to remember when Memorial Day caused my family to go to cemeteries with peonies and glass jars and put flowers on the graves of everyone.

CONAN: Decoration Day, it used to be called.

ROSEMARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Rosemary.

Here's an email from Frank(ph) in Cincinnati. I don't know exactly how many greats go before grandfather, but I'm related to Civil War General George B. McLellan, leader of the army of the Potomac. Historians pretty much agree he wasn't a very good general, as he could've finished the war sooner but failed to move. It kind of stinks because he was loved by his men. He contributed a great deal to military organization and planning, and even developed an infantry saddle that has helped horses last longer with all those hours under soldiers. So despite his failures, the man served, and if I may say, on the right side. So could you just give him a little thanks-for-your-service for me? His descendants would appreciate it.

And let's go next to Joe(ph), and Joe's with us from Hot Springs in South Dakota.

JOE (Caller): Yes, sir, thank you for taking my call. I would just like to remember Al(ph) today, who, in Vietnam in 1971, I was walking point, he was walking my drive man, watching my back. I detonated a booby trap. I was wounded, set home and it killed him. And to this day, in almost 39 years, I haven't mentioned it out loud, but I just like to remember my friend, Al, today. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you, Joe. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

JOE: He was about my age at that time, about 20. He was engaged. That day, he wasn't even due to walk on patrol, but everybody was tired and I needed a drive man. He volunteered. And that was the end of it. He nobody, today, I think realizes the sacrifice he made. I think about him every day. And again, this is the first time I think I've ever verbalized this to anyone. And I would just like to thank him and all the other unsung heroes from Vietnam.

CONAN: Joe, thank you for your call.

JOE: And thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Wind up with this couple more emails. This from Sharon(ph): I salute my husband, Michael(ph), who, as an 18-year-old Marine, landed on a beach Vietnam in 1965. He faced some difficult times and returned to civilian life in 1968 to rebuild a successful life. He values peace and respects those who serve. Semper fi, Michael.

Edward(ph) wrote: We remember five guys from the Bronx - my father, Army air corps; his brother, U.S. Army; my mother's brother, U.S. Navy; her cousin, Marine Corps, wounded at Iwo Jima; her brother-in-law, U.S. Army all World War II vets, all gone but not forgotten.

And this one from Audrey(ph) in Toledo: If my father were alive, he'd be 93 on his next birthday. He died in 1987. He served in the Army from 1942 until after VE-Day. He was technical sergeant in the 101st Airborne. He, like so many others, never spoke of his service. He showed no visible scars of his time in Europe. His internal wounds, however, broke open and bled when he heard "Taps," smelled burned meat or heard fireworks. He became visibly agitated and openly cried.

This is such a difficult memory for his children to see this man who is so strong, so hardworking and emotionally distant break down and cry, and he was embarrassed by it. Mom and Dad were married in November 1941. She said he came back from the war a different person. He self-medicated his untreated PTSD with alcohol. He was a good provider. His wife and six children loved him, but like him, his war years scarred us all. I remember my father on Memorial Day, and every time a lump at my throat forms when I hear "Taps."

Thanks to all of you who called and wrote. We're sorry we couldn't get to all of your messages.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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