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A post-Memorial Day appreciation for those who serve [commentary]

Memorial Day - which by the time anyone reads this will have been observed with wreath placings, the playing of patriotic music and more than a few back yard hot dog and hamburger feasts - got me thinking about our two major national somber observances, those being Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Certainly there are others, but these two are the ones most likely to result in days when public buildings are closed.

In our era, the two observances aren't easily distinguished. Likely as not, events on Memorial Day will be scheduled at 11 a.m., which is a convenient hour for such things, but is more properly related to Veterans Day, which falls on Nov. 11 (the 11th day of the 11th month) which is the anniversary of the end of World War I. Officially, hostilities ended at 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918. Veterans Day, to some degree is the day when we honor those who served and are still around to be thanked.

Memorial Day, by contrast, has its roots in the post-Civil War era and is kind of like the Jewish tradition of the yahrzeit, or memorial candle, which is lighted on the anniversary of a loved one's death. Memorial Day is the day when we honor our war dead, but it certainly is perfectly appropriate to say thanks to the many folks who have made our Memorial Day picnics possible by putting themselves in harm's way.

In my musings on the Memorial Day, for some reason my thoughts turned to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a novelist and essayist with a particularly biting style who was born, coincidentally for the purposes of this essay, on Nov. 11, 1922. He served with the Army and witnessed the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany, which has come to be regarded as right up there with the atomic bombings in terms of destruction.

Mr. Vonnegut, to the generation whose sons were sent off to fight in Southeast Asia, would become a leading anti-war figure. It was something of an irony as the tone of his writing about the subject of his having served always carries a measure of respect for the job of the soldier and the people who have volunteered for or been assigned that job.

On the whole, and as someone who has read a good deal of Mr. Vonnegut's published work, I take away from his writing that war is a terrible thing, but the people who end up fighting it are no more terrible than anyone else.

There's a quote in one of his novels, Mother Night, that, in a way, reflects the logic behind this sentiment: "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too."

What I've taken from the likes of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and proud World War II veteran Joseph Heller, who penned Catch-22, regarded as a preeminent anti-war novel, is that war is sometimes a necessary evil and one that should be regarded with as much trepidation as any evil, but the people who end up fighting it, far from being evil, are often heroic and good-hearted.

All in all, it's quite A moral issue that has befuddled people a lot smarter than me. What I do understand, though, is that without the folks we honor on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, there's a good chance we wouldn't be in a position to enjoy the picnics that follow the wreath ceremonies.

In that spirit, I say any day is a good day to say thanks to our defenders, even if Memorial Day is passed and Veterans Day is months away.

To the veterans reading this: I'm sorry my words can't fully express how I much I feel this, but thanks for what you've given.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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