“The unnamed soldier is a gift. The named soldier – dead, melted wax – demands a response among the living… a response no one can make. Names are no comfort, they’re a call to answer the unanswerable.”
– from Deadhouse Gates
Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson
This may be one of the best quotes that I have yet found for Memorial Day.
This comes from the perspective of a soldier who became a historian. Among his duties is the keeping a list of fallen soldiers. As a devastating crisis has been dragging on through desperate struggles and brutal deprivations, the weight of the names he keeps is bearing down ever more heavily on his shoulders, and it’s not over yet. It is one thing to know the number of the dead, but altogether a different beast to know each of their names.
How did someone once put it? A single death is tragedy while a million deaths are a statistic? Something like that. Numbers puts a certain distance between the living and the dead, but names irrevocably closes that distance. They’re no longer just “the dead,” just “casualties” or “collateral damage.” They’re people, each and every one of which has their own story. Whether one knows the story or not, knowing a name forges a connection on some a deeper than anything rational. It makes us care, and what we care about, we must do something about. We must make an answer, as humans.
That holds true for fallen soldiers, for civilian martyrs, and for children shot dead at school my some maniac, among others. To see and to know is to become responsible to both the dead who have perished and to the living who remain. There is an innate, unspoken and unspeakable demand upon each and every soul: something must be done.
These are deep and powerful forces at work, right at the very root of our being, both as individuals and as a community. It may be among the most noble and elements of humanity, but even this comes with an inherent danger. As we are not entirely rational beings, this urge, which lives far deeper in our hearts than does anything rational, can absolutely overthrow our sense of reason and restraint. That is the sin of wrath, and it can be surprisingly subtle, whenever we simply become too angry to think straight.
The soldier who falls in the line of duty is used as a tool to call for peace. There is nothing wrong with peace, except when it comes at the cost of those innocents for whom the soldier died in the first place. And then it’s not even peace. It is defeat.
The martyr who dies for a cause is used to validate and empower his cause, but that flow of humanity, too, can be turned upon itself, guided little by little away from what the martyr truly died for, into the ways of violent extremism. And the martyr rolls in their grave.
The child shot at school automatically demands that children ought to be better protected. Everyone agrees this should be done. But the politicians use it to advance their own agenda, because when people are in a rush to get something important done, they often forget to stop and ask: will this actually work?
Humans must feel this need in order to remain human, I believe, but there is more to it. The dead, after all, are making a very steep demand of us, the living. The unanswerable cannot be answered quickly, and seizing what seems like a short-term solution can prove to be utterly counterproductive. No, we must not simply feel this demand in our very souls, we must internalize it. Devour it. Lock it in its place, beneath the realm of the rational, and use it. Turn it into fuel for a stronger determination, a lifelong resolve to search for practical answers and implement them.
We honor the dead by tending their graves with diligence, but also by working to remember our past, safeguard our present, and improve our future.
The stories of the past, including every fallen soldier, martyr, and victim, are there for us to learn from, and if we fail to learn from them, we fail to keep the same from happening again. It’s not quick. It’s not easy. It’s a process that lasts for the rest of our lives and beyond.
How do we protect our children from madmen? By stepping up and putting ourselves between them. Children are safer when the adults around them are armed, capable of killing anything that threatens them.
How do we honor our martyrs? By learning from them and trying to do better, as they did.
How do we end the fighting which kills our soldiers? By defeating the enemy. How do we honor the freedom they died for? By doing as they did, and defending it with our all, nurturing it with everything we have.
That is the spirit of Memorial Day.