I live under debt.
As a Christian, of course, this notion is found at the core of the gospel, the good news, that is Jesus Christ – the God who died that those made in his image might live eternally. Among the proper responses to this are included gratitude, humility, and worship. Love, too, is proper: we love God because he first loved us.
But on this Memorial Day weekend, Americans of all faiths or none take a moment to remember other debts as well. To be sure, the debt that is owed to those who fell in military service to the nation is not the same debt that is owed to God. But there can be found in any sacrifice rightly done – that is to say, any sacrifice that is a free act of other-centered self-donation, or love – those characteristics that prove them to be of the same species as the supreme sacrifice that took place on Calvary. And there is similarity in our response as well: gratitude, of course; humility, yes; and even, one could argue, a certain kind of worship. Like in the archaic wedding vow, “with my body I thee worship”, the worship owed to a fallen warrior is obviously not the veneration or adoration reserved for God. Rather it is a question of demonstrating the worth-ship of the object in question – of giving appropriate honor to someone in recognition of their merit. How we live as Americans can demonstrate the worth, the value, of the sacrifices given for America.
My own consciousness of this debt is reinforced by a photograph I have of my paternal great-parents. In it my forebears are standing before a wall of photos in their home – four sons and a daughter, my grandmother. All the boys are in military uniform save one – he died as a toddler of a botched tonsillectomy. One among the others, and bearing the uniform of the Army Air Corp, my great-uncle Edward, from whom I received my middle name, was a gunner assigned to the 783rd Squadron of the 55thBomber Wing. He died on takeoff over the airfield in Pantanella, Italy when a device placed by an Italian saboteur detonated, killing the crew of my uncle’s B-24 Liberator. In an odd coincidence, my great uncle died during the squadron’s first-and-only mission to Slovakia – to a marshaling yard in Devinska Nova Ves, a suburb of Bratislava. I lived in Bratislava for more than a decade and helped build a sports and recreation program in Devinska. I knew nothing of Uncle Ed’s attempted mission while living there. And while it’s silly, the fact of it all makes me feel somehow closer to him – like I got to where he was going. But, and even better, I got to throw baseballs, not bombs. My guess is Ed would have liked that better too.
A few years ago, on my first visit to Washington, I made the trip to Uncle Ed’s grave in Arlington. Standing over his little plot, I was struck over how stupefyingly young he was. Never having met him, whenever my family would talk about him I mentally pictured him equivalent in whatever age my grandmother happened to be at the time. But, of course, there was never time for his hair to fade to silver, or for the skin on his face to go slack. He never had time to wither with age. He had barely made it to twenty-four. Yet, looking at many of the graves nearby, he was older than most of those around him, and I surpassed the oldest of them by a score of years.
Now that I make my life near the nation’s capital, I visited Uncle Ed again on my first Memorial Day weekend here. If my math is right, I have been on this earth, as of now, for 44 years, 17 days, and this morning – and I have known nothing but peace. And that is a part of the debt that I owe my Uncle Ed – and all those interred veterans around him.
The sea of young dead at Arlington and too many other national cemeteries around our nation might well suggest the waste of war. And, indeed, war is a waste. But only because everything that human beings are compelled to do against the fact of human sin is, in one sense, a waste. For but one example, the sheer tonnage that goes into making keys must be staggering – an expenditure required only because other people sometimes steal. When one considers all the good things that could have instead been made of the material that goes into keys, the waste would be unbearable –save for the fact that, presently, some folks really do try to take what they do not own; and they should be prevented from doing so. So much material, so much human ingenuity, so much time is wasted because of sin in the world. But it is a waste only when we hold it against the ideal of how the world ought to be. When viewed against the reality of our situation, the supposed waste takes on different dimensions. When one of my children are sick, I do not consider it a waste to procure the necessary medicines to heal them – despite the fact that medicines are necessary only because there exists in our world the privation of health that we call illness or disease. Recalling the Augustinian assertion that evil itself is the privation – the taking away – of essential goods – like health – I remember that the time, or money, or emotion, or skills, necessary to combat my child’s illness are not wasted at all but, rather, well spent. Such things protect goods rightly worthy of being protected.
And so it goes with Uncle Ed and the sea of dead around him. The Christian intellectual tradition articulated in just war casuistry, insists that wars may be justly fought, in the last resort and for the aim of peace, when sovereign authority determines that nothing else will retribute evil, take back what has wrongly been taken, or protect the innocent. In such cases, war is required to restore justice and order – political goods without which no other political good can long endure. Memorial Day reminds us that those goods cannot typically be had for a song, nor by wishful thinking, nor by turning inward and not concerning ourselves with the conditions of life of our international neighbors. Such goods cost, and it is right, and something noble, to be willing to bear those costs. While there is nothing glorious about dying young in war, even a just war, there surely is something glorious in being willing to.
Remembering the costs of war then – as well as our sometime responsibility to pay those costs – are among those things which we ought never to forget. And thus we ought simultaneously to strive both to limit those occasions in which wars are found to be both right and necessary, as well to morally form our sons and daughters to grow into the kinds of men and women who are willing to fight the right and necessary wars with humanity and honor.
Doing so with gratitude, humility, and the right acknowledgment of merit is one way to recall the debt under which we live, it is one way to remember the fallen for more than a single day each May, and it is one means by which to help ensure that though the lives of our martial dead were spent, they were not wasted.
Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence