As an American on Memorial Day, my mind usually goes to one of two moments; the beaches at Normandy and the desperate assault to dislodge a genocidal fascism from Europe, and the killing fields of nearby Antietam, where we ripped our own hearts open over whether all men were truly equals in the eyes of our fellow Americans as well as God.
Current events certainly compel us to revisit those conflicts with renewed contemplation of their lessons, even as we solemnly remember and mourn those who did not return to their families and communities. The neat rows of perfect headstones stand watch over the honored dead for eternity, and remind us that indeed many gave all, in defense of freedom for all of their countrymen and women, and ideals that we hold dear but still suffer as yet unfinished work.
My work as a family historian has shown me an entirely different perspective these past few years. Neither of the world wars touched our soil directly, even as great numbers of Americans gave that last measure far from home. And thus we simply cannot contemplate the bloodshed on the Somme or in the trenches of World War I, or the scale of annihilation around the world in WWII. For those unlucky enough to be in the path of destruction, so much is lost to memory and history.
I recently found my cousin's English great-grandfather and that he was killed at Gallipoli in 1915, a campaign with which I was unfamiliar. A quick bit of research left me stunned. For several months the Allies attempted the invasion of the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey, and by the time they withdrew unsuccessfully, a quarter million lay dead - on EACH side. Including her great-grandfather. I cannot begin to grasp the scale, nor can I imagine what it would have been like to return to civilian life after witnessing so very much death.
My recent work with wounded warriors in songwriting therapy brought survivor's guilt into sharp focus for me. I can imagine that these feelings are as old as organized war itself, and will be an ever-present after effect as long as war exists. No doubt survivor guilt haunted the veterans of our Civil War as surely as those who survived the world wars, Korea, southeast Asia and the Middle East too.
On this Memorial Day, I hold a special place in my heart for those who came home with those images and memories forever seared into their souls. For as long as there is war, there will be those who don't return, and those who mourn them from the moment they slipped away. For them too, we hold space, and we remember.