When a soldier is killed, what has occurred?
Does it matter who you are, where you are, or what you are doing?
Was it better to be a dead soldier lying face down in the dirt at Breed’s Hill or Gettysburg, than leaning against a wall or a post in Khost or Baghdad?
Does it matter if the soldier understands and believes in the mission, or is just doing as trained?
Does it matter if the soldier is 18 or 47? Had a lot to lose, or everything to gain? Married, single or divorced? A loving father or an absent one? A good son, or bitter?
Does it matter if the soldier wore his uniform properly and with pride every day? What if he was messy sometimes, or had a few unpleasant habits?
Does it matter whether the soldier had killed any of the enemy?
Does it matter if you make the news? If presidential candidates applaud your sacrifice, and use you for political leverage?
Does it matter if you had been captured, and died as a resisting prisoner?
Does it matter if your brothers and sisters in arms weep at your memorial service?
When a solider is killed, what has occurred?
I have a blurry answer that guides me through Memorial Day, and every occasion for thinking of a fallen member of the Armed Forces. I don’t think the questions above matter very much, at least at the fundamental level. But I’m often worried that if we abstract away from all of the details, then whatever is left at this fundamental level isn’t worth very much. So it matters how you understand the fundamental level, whether you respect the fallen out of respect for the dead or our vague duty of respecting fallen soldiers, or something else, you might have a very rich appreciation for killed military members or a very flimsy one.
My take is if the nation is good, then it is good to be in the military and to die in service to the nation. Serving in the military is profoundly instrumental. You have no control over the mission — the overarching mission. Being in Iraq or not being in Iraq is not your choice if you are doing your duty. So how can these two things be brought together — that it is good to die in service to the nation, but that your death occurs waging a war that may be good or bad?
I think the answer is in your faith in the inherent goodness of the nation, or at least the potential goodness that is still worth working at. In this sense, you might be the instrument of your nation’s mistake, but your nation is going to make that mistake with or without you. That fact that you are willing to be the one, putting your one life up, in order to carry out that will, if only so the nation can learn from its mistaken judgment in the witnessing of the results of your (its) efforts, then to me you have done something that brings chills, is easily wept over with tears of joy and love to anyone that realizes it. You have sacrificed your all so that your nation might have body, unity, and purpose, that it might learn, and that it might one way or another in the end, God willing, persevere. And when you can do that with the American flag on your uniform, fighting for American values, making America possible by giving her her will and capacity to be secure, you have brought your life to rest on the very strongest of foundations in this persistently dark and inscrutable world. And if you were right, and your nation is good, then your nation will remember you, and will benefit from your sacrifice, one way or another.
God bless America, God bless our military dead, and God have mercy on all of our souls.