With Veterans Day almost here, it is time to remember and honor those men and women who have sacrificed for their country. Over a decade ago, Steven Spielberg’s wonderful, horrific, touching movie “Saving Private Ryan” awakened thousands of people to what war is really like. With that in mind, hopefully this year on Veterans Day people will not just rue it as an inconvenient day when banks and post offices are closed or rejoice in it as a paid holiday, but will actually think about our veterans and our history.
When I attended “Saving Private Ryan,” three thoughts were constantly running through my head: The first was that my great-uncle had been in the invasion of Normandy. Thankfully, he survived. But, when he returned to the United States at the end of the war, he kept his memories and feelings inside. He never discussed the war or his experiences. I used to think that that was somehow "unfair," that we were interested in history and since he was right there when it was being made he "owed" it to us to share his memories. It only took the first 10 minutes of the movie for me to realize why he would never want to relive those moments. And certainly they should not be used as fodder to entertain curious children.
My second thought was that my father had entered the service as the war in Europe was coming to an end. He was one of those destined to participate in an invasion of Japan, which would surely have been just as bloody and traumatic as D-Day. Throughout the years I have pondered the dropping if the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I have heard the arguments pro and con. It had ended the war. It had unleashed upon the world a terrible new weapon of destruction. It had saved the lives of American soldiers. It had killed or maimed millions of innocent Japanese civilians. Spielberg’s movie brought out in gory detail what awaited my father had the land war against the Japanese commenced. And it increased my consciousness of the relief that dropping of the atomic bombs and the almost immediate cessation of the war brought to thousands of American servicemen and their families and loved ones.
The third wave of thoughts that ran through my mind were glimpses of the graves I have seen, the monuments I have touched and the cemeteries I have walked through. I have lived in Europe, Hawaii and Washington, D.C.. All three locations are home to the final resting places of thousands of American soldiers.
In Luxembourg, I went to the Luxembourg American Cemetery where General Patton is buried. I stood there surrounded by over 5,000 white crosses and thought about the young men who never returned to their jobs and families and friends.
In France, I saw countless monuments marking both the “Great War” of World War I and its follow-up, World War II. In my experience, one would be hard-pressed to find any village or town that does not have at least one monument to those wars. There are public memorials not only for their fellow French citizens, but also for the British and Americans and others who fought alongside the French. In many parts of Europe, one can really understand or “feel” the world wars in a way that one can’t in most of the U.S.
However, a place in the United States where war does seem real and tangible is, of course, Hawaii. Going to Pearl Harbor and taking the boat out to the monument over the sunken Arizona was unforgettable. I actually began to feel shaky and ill when I realized that entombed beneath me were the remains of young, vibrant sailors who were going about their normal routines when they were caught off guard. I tried not to think about the panic and the fear they must have felt as their ship was going down and they knew there was no escape.
On Oahu, overlooking Honolulu, is Punchbowl Crater, which is an innocuous name for what makes its home there: the National Memorial cemetery of the Pacific. It is a gorgeous resting place for more veterans.
In the Washington, D.C., area, one finds Arlington National Cemetery as well as numerous war memorials, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Marine Corps War Memorial (commonly called the Iwo Jima Memorial). When I have been to the Wall, I have felt as if I was an intruder. That is a recent war and every time I go there, I encounter people whose friends’ or family member’s names are listed on the Wall. While I may be there as a tourist, they are there for something personal. It almost feel sacrilegious to invade their grief.
Whether or not you have seen “Saving Private Ryan” and regardless of whether you have been to any of the places that I mentioned, I hope that on Veterans Day we will remember the sacrifices that have been made by brave men and women who have fought on behalf of our country. If you know any veterans, maybe you can make a point of thanking them for their bravery and service. Maybe you could call the local veterans hospital for the names of patients who could use a visitor or a cheery chat. Try to take a couple of minutes to reflect on our nation’s history and its unsung heroes. We know the names and stories of only a few people, but there have been millions of people who counted their own safety, happiness and personal goals as subservient to the common good.
I hope that we never forget the horrors of war. And, that we always remember our veterans.
Jane Ralls is a Columbia resident.