There’s a pair of photographs that sometimes run through my mind when I think on these things. Taken by a New York Times photographer embedded with a Marine company in Afghanistan I believe. Two moments frozen in amber. In the first, we see the back of a young infantryman, his face in partial profile. He’s facing front, alert towards potential threat, rifle at a low ready. He’s young, lean and tall and he’s very far from home but in the company of those he trusts. They – quite literally – have his back.
A few moments later he’s lying in a ditch with his legs blown off by an RPG, and some of his friends swarm around him in a fruitless attempt to save his life while others surge past to try and find the shooter. He never thought it would end like this, none of them did.
But he knew it could. And he went anyway.
So today’s our day to remember him, or one just like him. Pick one, the faces run together in aggregate. Humans get lost in the sea of humanity, their innate complexity – the kind of thing we grant ourselves for free – gets drowned in the baseline in any population over two or three, far less four or five thousand. We cannot process it, and so we tend to draw cartoon hero action figures where once stood individual beings with unique genetic make-ups blended with irreplicable experiences whose dreams and potential will remain forever unrealized and unfulfilled.
Cook your burgers, throw your ball, head to the beach. But raise your flag too, and send a prayer of gratitude and humility if you’ve got one for those who loved you and this our idea sufficiently to interpose themselves between you and that which they had good reason to believe would threaten you.
Spare a moment of time to think too of those they left behind whose worst fears were realized and who wake up every day to the howling emptiness in their lives. Those who need no holiday marked on the calendar to be made sensible of that loss.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.