Memorial Day, here in the US, is a bit of a mixed bag. It is, by its very nature, a day we set aside to focus on those who have laid their lives down in pain, misery, and suffering, so that others wouldn’t have to. Often, those others are neighbors and fellow countymen; sometimes, complete strangers from other nations.
And yet, it’s a celebration as well. The school year is either over or almost so; in most places in the United States, it’s finally warm and dry enough to have perfect grilling and picnicking weather. The long weekend is a perfect opportunity for this and other activities.
It’s a strange contradiction in American life; a contradiction that compliments itself, as happens with so many other things in life. Americans just seem to raise it to an art form. Memorial Day, perhaps more so than any other American holiday, is a sober celebration. It is a day of remembering that we can forget; that others have paid the price for what we enjoy, and that they did so with that in mind. With the intention that we can celebrate this day without a care in the world, without asking for any special recognition for themselves in return.
Because, in another complimentary contradiction, they tell us that those who died are the real heroes. That those who didn’t make it are the ones who deserved victory. And so they ask nothing for themselves, and just some recognition for their fallen comrades. The strangers they might never have met themselves, but know in some ways more intimately than their own families. The bond forged by shared experiences of that magnitude are beyond anything understood by those who never shared them. Two soldiers who fought in different wars are more alike than any civilian can comprehend.
I’m a military brat myself, son of a Navy officer, and I’ve never seen combat. I’ve met those who have, however. I can see the toll it’s taken — and it’s less about the horror of war that movies try to recreate, and more about the inability to express the difference to those who have never explained it. Combat isn’t something that can be summed up in words, not normal words at any rate. You might as well try to explain love to someone who has never experienced it; or anger, or humor, or fear.
The effect of combat isn’t just a wounding, whether physical or spiritual. It’s a gulf of understanding. The isolation that comes from that is akin to coming home and wondering why everyone is suddenly speaking a different language. Only those who have been there can grasp it.
The closest that I or other civilians can get is the one medium that has had the greatest success at explaining abstract concepts: poetry. Poems are a different kind of communication; the same words, but rearranged for a different structure. What they describe doesn’t need to be exact; it just needs to feel.
For the last hundred years and more, the military of English-speaking nations, as well as a few others, have been turning to Rudyard Kipling as the chief poet of soldiers everywhere. Few people have so completely caught the turmoil of explaining war like Kipling managed in so few lines.
Civilians, on the other hand, tend to turn to music. War songs have been around for longer than writing, but only in an age of recorded and highly portable music have they managed to beat out poetry for communicating those difficult concepts. There are a lot of songs to pick from: “Over There,” “God Bless the USA,” “Ragged Old Flag.”
I wanted to share these two, from my favorite band, The Cruxshadows. They’re the ones that, for me, most perfectly sum up Memorial Day.
The first is “Return,” or “Coming Home.”
I’ve seen the terrible hand of struggle
And felt the pain that hubris brings
I have tasted the wisdom of divinity
And the horrors of its sting
For the distance I have traveled
Upon an ocean of despair
Has led me back into your arms once more
An answer to a little prayer
And though they tell you I am lost
And their words report my death is come
The fates have left me breathing still
Very much alive!
And though my mind is cut by battles,
Fought so long ago
I return victorious
I am coming home
And if the paths that I have followed
Have tread against the flow
There is no need for sorrow
I am coming home
This feels very much like an aftermath; a soldier, presumed dead, reuniting with his family. He’s changed because of his experiences, and the memory of those who haven’t made it back; but the sorrow of parting is over, and he doesn’t regret what he went though, even though it briefly lead through despair and loss.
The rest of the details are up to the listener. That’s the beauty of poetry and song. The fine details can be filled in by your own imagination, and so everyone hears a slightly different story from everyone else.
The other song is the Cruxshadows’ most famous, and unsurprisingly their most popular among the military. It’s “Winter Born,” or “This Sacrifice”; it sums up the self-sacrificial nature of a citizen military better than anything I’ve ever heard.
Hold your head up high, for there is no greater love
Think of the faces of the people you defend
And promise me they will never see
The tears within our eyes
Although we are men with mortal sins
Angels never cry
So bury fear, for fate draws near
And hide the signs of pain
With noble acts, the bravest souls
Endure the heart’s remains
Discard regret, that in this debt
A better world is made
That children of a newer day might remember
And avoid our fate
And in the fury of this darkest hour
I will be your light
A lifetime for this destiny
For I am Winter born
And in this moment..I will not run
It is my place to stand
We few shall carry hope
Within our bloodied hands
And in our Dying, we’re more alive
Than we have ever been
I’ve lived for these few seconds
For I am Winter born
And in my dying
I’m more alive, than I have ever been
I will make this sacrifice
For I am Winter born
The Cruxshadows, as you’ve noticed already if you’ve played the music, are a goth band. Rather than playing the stereotypical music about dark and depressing subjects, they take those themes and turn them on their head. Songs about death focus not on an end, but on a continuance. Songs about life tell us that life’s a pretty cool thing, all told.
“Winter Born” is from their album Ethernaut, and that collection draws heavily on the Trojan War cycle for inspiration. “Winter born” is an obscure epithet for the Trojans; they were “born of winter,” which in ancient Greek was an idiom meaning that they were fierce and could endure hardship. It also carried an implication of inevitable doom. Those Greeks were like that.
I met the band last summer, and heard the lead singer and songwriter Rogue also describe two other sources of inspiration for this song. One, as he is a strong Catholic, was Christ — the sacrificial lamb, where being killed brought new life. The other, which comes through even stronger, was a photo of an American soldier.
Rogue described how he spent hours staring at this one photo, which he’d never been able to find again. It showed a soldier holding his rifle left-handed, clearly wounded in at least two places, and standing his ground — not for himself, but for the child he’s protecting with his right arm. A small little Arab girl, peeking out from behind him, scared . . . but trusting the foreign soldier, this stranger, to protect her.
“Winter Born,” Rogue explained, was written out of him trying to understand the mentality that could go into being that soldier. Being someone who wasn’t just in a foreign country to defend his home and occupy terrorists seeking to kill his own people, but who was putting his life on the line to protect someone else’s kids. Someone who would rather not be there, but who willingly makes that sacrifice because, ultimately, he’d rather be the one to die rather than that kid or anyone like her.
I think Rogue nailed it, and I’m not the only one. Veterans agree, and their opinion on this subject matters far more than mine ever could.
Happy Memorial Day, everyone.