Monthly column published under the title, "The Meaning in a Medal of Honor"
NORTHAMPTON — He looked like a deer in the headlights — a burly, 27-year-old receiving the nation’s highest military award from the commander-in-chief. On the TV screen, Kyle J. White’s face was a study in enforced stillness as if, were he to assert his own truth, he might somehow impolitely disrupt President Barack Obama’s Medal of Honor party.
Prior to the May 13 White House ceremony, White spoke about the time on a cliff face in Afghanistan. It was Nov. 9, 2007, and his unit had been ambushed by a superior force of Taliban fighters: “I told myself that I was going to die. You know, there’s no doubt in my mind I was not going to make it off that cliff that day. And so in my mind … it was, you know, if I am going to die I’m going to help my battle buddies until it happens ...."
No doubt those reading his words or smiling at the White House ceremony glowed in the light of White’s indisputable valor. Socially speaking, he had done his “duty” at great personal risk. From the point of view of the society that sent him to war, White had been prepared to make the “ultimate sacrifice.”
But what of the sacrifice that is made when there is a failure — in pitched battle or elsewhere — to nourish the human connection that is every person’s birthright?
Next Monday is Memorial Day — the day on which those who died in combat are remembered. On that day, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers — all of them to some degree beloved or honored — are resurrected, however briefly.
Memorial Day is for the dead whose survivors hold parades, wave flags and speak solemnly of the “ultimate sacrifice” these “heroes” made for “a grateful nation.” Far from the tuba music and podiums, in a hundred shadowed places, there is weeping as well.
And as ever, the question whispers: How shall the survivors honor — really honor — our veterans?
Is a White House ceremony or parade a real answer?
By what grim logic does an audience that helped feed these men and women into the wood-chipper of war in the first place expect them now to be salved or feel vindicated by a medal marking events that did nothing to nourish them? The audience remembers what any combat veteran might give his or her eye teeth to forget ... and cannot. The audience remembers and applauds its veterans and in so doing, sidesteps its own very real complicities.
During World War I, in the week before the Christmas of 1914, there were scattered incidents in which German, British and French troops laid down their arms, ventured into no-man’s-land, exchanged gifts, buried the dead, sang carols and in some instances played a game of soccer. In a terrain littered with body parts and filled with the screams of men calling out for their mothers and everywhere the smell of death ... they stopped.
Perhaps, like Kyle J. White, they too knew death could easily be their lot, but more important than that was their own humane and nourishing humanity.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was not universal and the inclination that inspired it was quickly squelched by the generals on all sides who were enraged: How can you have a decent war, a “patriotic” war, a “necessary” war, when people are singing songs, religious or otherwise? Many of those who had sung songs soon returned to the trenches and many paid “the ultimate price.”
And yet, however brief the moment, there was something that touched those men in the trenches. Religion, principle, defiance or altruism may all have played a role in their actions, but before all of that, before all the explanations, there was something else. It was just ... gut-level ... human.
Is that the message our veterans send us — that peace is not the result of laying down arms; that there are times to fight but that there is an even greater courage in learning to live in a way that is nourishing, deserves to be nourished and is unlikely ever to receive a medal?
Perhaps that is the now-departed veterans’ message to us: Live courageously: Medals and applause and even victory never were the point.
So how shall we honor these men and women warriors in return? How can anyone truly honor our veterans? The only answer I can come up with is ... stop making them.
On his right wrist, Kyle J. White wears a bracelet engraved with the names of the six men who made the “ultimate sacrifice” on an Afghan cliff. The bracelet is a reminder of loss and of the people White calls his heroes, the men he was unable to save.
But also, perhaps, that bracelet is a reminder of something less quantifiable and something for which there are no medals: Kyle J. White has a proven capacity to be a good man who did not have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
No doubt Kyle J. White was not singing on Nov. 9, 2007, but his actions sang for him.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.