“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” – William Tecumseh Sherman
Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60. From a distance, the headstones all look the same. Their symmetry reflects the military’s precision and seems at first to confer near anonymity on the souls of those who rest beneath them. Walking in their midst, however, and reading the names inscribed in bold black letters on white marble, one feels their individuality emerge. The inscriptions are simple: name, dates of birth and death, a military operation they engaged in, an award. At the top of each stone is etched a cross, a Star of David, a crescent moon and star, or some other symbol of religious affiliation. Simple. Orderly. Dignified.
As one makes the calculations that the pairs of dates encourage, the ages of each strike fiercely home. Just shy of 21— not yet old enough to buy a beer, yet able to wield a weapon of war on behalf of his country. Forty — awaiting the birth of twins due soon after returning from deployment. Thirty-two — a newly promoted major, 10 years into a planned life of service in uniform. Twenty-two — nearing the end of an enlistment, a college acceptance letter in hand. Scores more interred at the pristine grounds of Arlington National Cemetery — and at other national cemeteries in the United States, as well as at grounds maintained by the U.S. Battlefield Monuments Commission in Europe, northern Africa, and southeast Asia — tell similar tales of lives cut short in service to their country.
The tombstones tell us their “forever age.” The age they were when parents, a spouse, children and siblings learned that the smiles and hugs exchanged with their loved one before they shipped off to war would indeed be the last — forever.
Families with loved ones buried at Arlington will be allowed to visit for the holiday.
Their forever age memorializes a time when their bodies were lean and taut, primed for war, capable of physical feats we can only envy rather than emulate; when their motives arose from idealism and a love of adventure, untainted by the cynicism that comes with the passage of years; when their fortunes were small, loves short-lived, and dreams outlandish, but impossible to abandon.
Their forever age locks in memory a time when they put aside selfish interests and committed themselves to a collective effort more significant than anything they had ever confronted before; a time when they joined a tribe that transcended class, age, geography, religion and education, a tribe that carried the pride of their service and our nation; a time when the excitement of going to war wasn’t so much about seeking violence as it was about gaining the wisdom and maturity that would come from responding to that violence; and when they fulfilled the proverbial cycle: leaving home as a child and returning a warrior.
They left us at their forever age, never again to see a sun rise, feel the sting of rain on their cheek, scribble a picture with their child, read a book aloud, or fall in love. Because they left us at their forever age, they will never grey, grow a paunch, or succumb to the other effects of time and gravity that take their toll on those they left behind.
In an era when military service is the exception rather than the norm, the deaths of our service members in combat overseas is often a concept — an image — as unreal as a sentence in a novel. Local papers may publish an article about the hometown hero, but the attention paid to political squabbles, the petty antics of celebrities, and the minutiae between breakfast and bedtime loom larger. The families of those killed in action — and those who have served with them and have returned — are soon left to face their grief alone.
This Memorial Day, take a moment to honor and remember those who found their forever age too soon.
Frank (“Gus”) Biggio is a former Marine. His book about serving in Afghanistan in 2009, The Wolves of Helmand, will be published by Forefront Books this year.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.