Afghanistan has often enough been called “the graveyard of empires.” Americans have made it a habit to whistle past that graveyard, looking the other way—a form of obliviousness much aided by the fact that the American war dead conveniently come from the less well known or forgotten places in our country. They are so much easier to ignore thanks to that.
Except in their hometowns, how easy the war dead are to forget in an era when corporations go to war but Americans largely don’t. So far, 1,980 American military personnel (and significant but largely unacknowledged numbers of private contractors) have died in Afghanistan, as have 1,028 NATO and allied troops, and (despite U.N. efforts to count them) unknown but staggering numbers of Afghans.
So far in the month of May, 22 American dead have been listed in those Pentagon announcements. If you want a little memorial to a war that shouldn’t be, check out their hometowns and you’ll experience a kind of modern graveyard poetry. Consider it an elegy to the dead of second- or third-tier cities, suburbs, and small towns whose names are resonant exactly because they are part of your country, but seldom or never heard by you.
I did check out the hometowns and I’ve never heard of Normangee, Texas. According to the 2000 Census, Normangee is a town of 719 people, 277 households, and 185 families.
Sgt. Wade D. Wilson, of Normangee, Texas, died May 11 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, California. He was 22.
But even as we pulled out our troops in Iraq, and combat operations are planned to end in Afghanistan in 2014, the next operation is one with no easy exit.
Fall semester, second week of class, a student stays after: his field jacket, his scruffy beard tell the story. I don’t know if you have noticed, he says, but when I answer your questions sometimes I lose my line of thought and I stumble a bit trying to find it again. I tell him the lie I hadn’t noticed, but his speech, slurred, slowed, gives it away—a sergeant, twenty-seven months in Iraq. My wife thinks I have PTSD he says. Every class he stays after, and there’s little I can say, little I can do except listen: maybe there’s little anyone can do, that old lesson we never seem to learn, moving from “costly their winestream” to the “red, sweet wine of youth”: enough there to embarrass half the demons of hell.
At night the NewsHour runs pictures of the dead, name, rank, hometown flashing, holding, silently across the screen—the first man just eighteen. We might remember Urien’s lament: “I bear a great warrior’s skull; I bear a head at my heart.” Or has war’s paradigm so changed Urien’s progeny may now swear, “I bear the dead, the half-dead in my half-dead skull; I bear the dead in my half-dead heart.”
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. It was was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It is observed annually in the United States on the last Monday of May.
Excerpt from General Logan’s 1868 order:
All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from his honor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
Below are some photos from US missions marking the day of remembrance overseas:
US Embassy Manila, Philippines
Memorial Day 2011: An American boy plants American and Philippine flags beside a cross that marks one of the 17,000 graves in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Taguig City on May 28 as part of the U.S. observance of Memorial Day. On May 29, U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr. led representatives of the American community and guests in a ceremony at the Memorial to pay tribute to the soldiers of the U.S. and its allies who have fallen in defense of freedom and democracy. The 152-acre cemetery and memorial in Manila has the largest number of graves of U.S. soldiers who died in World War II. The graves include those of 570 Filipinos who served with the U.S. Forces in the Southwest Pacific.
Memorial Day, May 27, 2012. Chargé d’Affaires Leslie A. Bassett offers a wreath in honor of all Veterans this Memorial Day, at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Taguig City, Philippines. (Photo from US Embassy Manila)
US Embassy Montevideo, Uruguay
May 31, 2010. A U.S. Marine replaces a worn out flag at the grave site of a young sailor, honoring fallen U.S. servicemen buried at the British Cemetery in Montevideo [U.S. Embassy photo by Vince Alongi]
US Embassy Djibouti, Djibouti
Mike Lombardo, regional security officer for U.S. Embassy, Djibouti, gives the opening remarks during a Ceremony at Cimetiere non Mulilman de Djibouti, May 31. The Memorial Day Ceremony honored Pilot Officer Lawrence Maguire, an American who volunteered for the Canadian air force, one of the many military members who gave their lives during World War II. Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
US Embassy Tunis, Tunisia
U.S. Army Col. Warren P. Gunderman, a military representative at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, lays a wreath Monday during a Memorial Day service at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial near Carthage, Tunisia. Photo by US Army Africa
US Embassy Nassau, The Bahamas
US Embassy observed Memorial day with a Wreath Laying Ceremony at Clifton Pier. On Monday, May 31, 2010 the United States Embassy observed Memorial Day with a wreath laying ceremony at Clifton Pier in memory of fallen service men and women. Special recognition was given to the U.S. Patrol Squadron 23 Sailors, who perished off the coast of Nassau on May 7, 1954.
US Embassy Baghdad, Iraq
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Maj. Gen. Mark Zamzow, bow their heads during a moment of silence. Troops deployed to Iraq hold a Memorial Day ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Denny Cantrell | 05.26.2008
US Embassy Tallinn, Estonia
U.S. Embassy Tallinn Recognizes Memorial Day – May 30, 2011 (Photo from US Embassy Tallinn/Flickr)
US Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan
Memorial Day, Kabul 2010 (Photo from US Embassy Kabul/Flickr)
Plaque “In memory of Ambassador Adolp ‘Spike’ Dubs, Killed in Kabul on February 14, 1979” (Photo from US Embassy Kabul/Flickr)
U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, DEA Regional Director Michael T. Marsac, program analyst Lisa Hostettler, Assistant Regional Director Craig Wiles and secretary Teresa Hernandez near a marker for DEA Special Agents Forrest N. Leamon, Michael E. Weston and Chad L. Michael at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, 2011. (Photo from US Embassy Kabul/Flickr)
US Embassy Wellington, New Zealand
Memorial Day Service at Old St Paul’s, Wellington – May 30, 2011 (Photo from US Embassy New Zealand/Flickr) Click here for slideshow
Memorial Day 2012 | This Memorial Day the people of Kapiti Coast on the North Island of New Zealand unveiled a memorial to the 10 U.S. sailors who died during a training exercise while trying to come ashore on June 20, 1943. About 350 people, including Charge d’Affaires Marie Damour and a U.S. Marine Color guard, were there for the dedication of the memorial, sculptured into the shape of a landing craft, close to the waters where the tragedy occurred. Read more here. (Photo from US Embassy NZ/Flickr)
Something more to remember – below is a photo from Kabul, Afghanistan, April 10, 2006: The U.S. Embassy in Kabul renamed a camp in honor of Diplomatic Security Special Agent Eric Sullivan, who was killed on September 19, 2005, during a terrorist attack on his motorcade in Mosul, Iraq. Camp Sullivan is a self-contained facility for the local guard force that provides protection to all official U.S. facilities in Kabul. During Special Agent Sullivan’s career with the Diplomatic Security Service he volunteered to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq.