Memorial Day is considered the official start of summer, and usually kicks off a series of camping trips, barbecues, and family gatherings that roll on till September. And despite the notoriously wet weather that normally greets us on this end-of-May holiday, I'm usually down with the slip-n-slide, burgers on the grill mindset.
Sure, we all know that Memorial Day is officially meant for remembering those dear souls who have passed before us, especially those who gave their lives in service to our country. We hang our flags and visit the cemeteries and maybe tell a few stories about our fallen heroes. These are important acts too.
But this year feels very different to me. Because I'm in the middle of watching the Ken Burns documentary series on the Vietnam War, and it is rocking my world. As a little girl just beginning to figure out life during those war years, I found it very difficult to piece together the tidbits of information I slowly accumulated about this terrible conflict on the other side of the world that was threatening to tear apart the fabric of my simple life. Like most other girls my age, I sent away for a stainless steel POW bracelet and wore it on my arm till it fell off one day while I was swimming and I saw many a protest on the familiar campus at nearby University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where my eyes just barely could peek out at the bottom of the car window as we drove past.
Now I understand why. Even as a seasoned adult, I'm just beginning to understand what a truly complicated, frustrating, one-of-a-kind rat trap that war turned out to be. I have a certain amount of compassion and understanding for all the political players and military honchos who just did not understand what they were up against. I can easily wrap my head around the thinking of the voices of protest who demanded that we, as a country, make love not war, though I can see now that in their intense frustration, protesters sometimes went too far in their violence and aggressive postures.
And while I feel frustration and anger for the motivations of the North Vietnamese who determined to convert their country to communism at any cost, my heart breaks over and over again for the people of Vietnam who simply tried to live their lives in the midst of a literal war zone. Since I've been lucky enough to visit that country three times while my third-born daughter was living and teaching English there, I feel a personal connection to the gentle people and the now-familiar places that feature so prominently in the story of the war, and suffered such profound loss.
But as the 17-hour series unfolds, one message comes through loud and clear to me: the vast majority of the young men - boys, really - who put their boots on the ground in Vietnam and tried to do the job they were sent to do are heroes. When I hear the full story, I realize that many of the atrocities they reportedly committed - that haunted my nightmares as a child - are much more complicated and nuanced than simply American soldiers gone rogue. There is ample evidence that most of the U.S. soldiers did what they could to make the best out of an absolutely awful situation, and they gave their lives with great courage and selflessness.
And so on this Memorial Day, I lift up the lives of the 58,318 American soldiers who died in the terrible mess of the Vietnam War, and thank them with all my heart for their service.