Column: Does remembering the dead mean remembering their deeds?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2001

It’s pretty obvious to us when Memorial Day is near because of everything going on next door at the cemetery.

Tuesday, May 29, 2001

It’s pretty obvious to us when Memorial Day is near because of everything going on next door at the cemetery. This year has been no exception, although the activity is spread over fewer days because the on-and-off rain has made gardening difficult. The traffic at the cemetery usually picks up quite a bit – cars coming and going, people pulling weeds and planting flowers, and lots of flags. Our dog gets excited by all of this. We keep her chained up because if she were loose she would chase the cars. She would also, with the instincts of a good working sheep dog, try to herd the people at the cemetery together. From experience we have learned that people don’t like to be herded by a barking dog.

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The result of all the effort is a cemetery that looks more like a garden than a field full of dead bodies. Everywhere we look now there are blooms planted in the ground and baskets or urns of flowers. Hostas and shrubs have been weeded and pruned. Everything is cleaned up and refreshed (especially after all of this rain). We see people visiting with each other or just quietly taking in the place and spending time with those who are buried there. Our kids wander over and watch what’s going on, talking to both strangers and people they know, occasionally lending a hand with weeding and planting.

The only downside I can think of is that on the morning of the Monday we call Memorial Day &uot;Observed,&uot; we are sometimes woken up by the gunshots of the honor guard. Three shots echo across the fields, to honor those slain in battle. After the Legionnaires leave, the kids go out looking for the shells.

Memorial Day has always been a strange day for me. It was important to my father, as he had friends who had been killed in Vietnam. I remember when he talked about their deaths and what they meant to him. But that was his story and those are his memories. For myself, as I walk through the cemeteries around here and see the graves or memorial markers for those listed as killed in battle in WWII, I find myself hoping that none of my relatives did that killing. My grandfather served in the U.S. Army during WWII, but most of my relatives who saw duty in that conflict served in the German army, as loyal members of the Nazi war machine.

One great-uncle was captured in 1944 by the Americans, as they advanced through France after D-Day. He never told me how many &uot;enemy&uot; soldiers he’d killed while doing his duty for God and nation. Only when he was drunk would he say anything about it, and then he was partly proud of his courage, but mostly bitter about having been duped into fighting for a madman. Two other great-uncles were captured in Russia and Ukraine, as the Germans fled back home after losing the battle of Stalingrad. The time they spent as POWs broke their health and their spirits. Other relatives were killed on the Russian front or died in air raids on Hannover, Dresden and Berlin.

Given this history, my feelings about honoring soldiers who have suffered and died serving their country are ambivalent. White people in the South honor the dead fallen in the Civil War. But they died trying to maintain the right to own slaves. Where is the honor in that? The soldiers who died suppressing Indian rebellions were participating in the wholesale theft of another nation’s land. Where is the nobility in that? The soldiers in Vietnam who killed civilians, now including former Sen. Bob Kerrey, did things that are defined as war crimes when committed by non-Americans. Their misdeeds stain the record of those who died believing they were fighting for democracy.

On a day like today, stuck between the real Memorial Day and the one we observe (because three day weekends are more convenient), I honor all of those who died in the service of God and nation. They are all worth remembering. Noble or not, they all gave their nations something that can never be repaid.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.