Across the road from my remodeled farmhouse, men and women are pacing the community cemetery planting flags and freshening flowers. They are in the minority: Memorial Day is another name for "official summer kick-off," with barbecue and blockbuster movies setting the theme. The war dead this holiday was meant to honor barely cross our minds.
Still, websites and newspapers this weekend have included eloquent tributes to men and women who gave their lives for their country. And scoffers will scoff: Not much glory in dying for a lie, is there? When a cynical government tricks a young high school graduate into signing up, and he's blown away by an IED, is he a hero or a dupe? There may be enough truth in the scoffing to make us a little uncomfortable, but it still sounds petty and shrill.
On the other hand, praise can be fulsome to a fault, and the word "hero" weakens with use. We know that not every recruit to the armed forces is signing up primarily to serve his country or be all he can be. Some enlist for the benefits, some for the job training, some because they can't think of anything else to do and they're willing to let the Army make decisions for them while they're trying to figure it out. Enlistees are funneled into rude, crude barracks life, where conversation seeks out the lowest common denominator. They're assigned to pointless duties and given incomprehensible orders. If they are unlucky enough to face combat, it's not idealism that keeps them from running but primitive loyalty to the other guys. A soldier's motives are mixed, and usually so is his government's. Should that make any difference in the honor he's due?
Not at all. As Henry V said in Shakespeare's play of that name, "[T]here is no king, be his cause never so spotless … can try it out with all unspotted soldiers. … Every subject's duty is the king's, but every subject's soul is his own." Every cause, whatever its worth, is fought with "spotted soldiers," and every soul is answerable to God alone. But their sacrifice is no less a sacrifice, and sinful soldiers are more than worthy of the gratitude of sinful citizens.