Today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor those who gave their lives in defense of our freedom, and while it is not the same as Veteran’s Day, I find myself thinking of all those who answered the call to serve our country, because while giving one’s life is a particularly honorable deed (the “last full measure of devotion”), no one who went off to serve knew how it would turn out, and so for me, today is a day to remember all those who served, with a special prayer for those who died. For my generation, the war was the Vietnam War, a complicated war unlike many others. Those who served in that war (including my brother and my brother-in-law) had to contend with a conflicted nation back home, and were not initially welcomed home as heroes.
You can read histories of the Vietnam War; Stanley Karnow’s is particularly good, and if you read it, or many other histories, you will learn a lot about what happened. But, if you want to know what it was like to be there, to fight and die or survive in Vietnam, then read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. If you want to know what it was like to come home, listen to John Prine’s “Sam Stone,” a song lyric that moved the poet laureate of the United States to proclaim it the best thing ever written about the Vietnam War. Fiction and poetry are able to tap into the emotional and memory centers of our brains as well as the areas that allow us to understand language or appreciate music. New connections can be made and we can come to feel what soldiers felt, to empathize with what they went through. On this special day, we all owe it to our heroes to try and better understand what their experience was like.