Several years ago, a young Hollywood celebrity caused an uproar when media leaked her email to friends inviting them to a Memorial Day party. Guests were urged to “glorify” the observance by “drinking massive amounts of beer” and liquor shots, while tripping about in risque clothing to flaunt their starved figures. In the textbook definition of an understatement, the hostess flatly admitted she “had no clue what Memorial Day means.”
Equally disheartening was the broader reaction to the incident. Gossipmongers weren’t put off by such boozy antics on a day set aside to honor war dead; rather, they couldn’t believe the starlet had stipulated “no girls over 100 pounds” would be admitted to the bash, and that she’d threatened to put a scale at the door by way of enforcement.
In the end, the young lady claimed the email (set to rhyme, by the way) had been a joke, although her co-hostess did end up being rushed to the hospital during the festivities for allegedly mixing antibiotics and alcohol. (Stranger still, the whole debacle was later turned into an exhibit at a Brooklyn-based pop culture museum.)
To those of us who don’t regularly fend off paparazzi, such flaps prompt little more than an eyeroll and a shake of the head. But as we ready the grill and take advantage of holiday sales this weekend, we may want to consider how well we ourselves commemorate the thousands of men and women who have placed themselves between us and the enemies of freedom.
So far, more than 1.1 million Americans have died on the battlefield, with our own Civil War alone (1861-1865) claiming roughly 500,000 (and possibly as many as 650,000) lives. Just 140 miles west of Philadelphia, the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) saw more than 7,000 Union and Confederate soldiers killed. Some five decades later, World War I’s Battle of the Argonne Forest (officially known as the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive) would prove to be the deadliest in our nation’s history, claiming well over 26,000 U.S. soldiers.
Thousands of combatants have survived bullets, bombs and gassing only to later succumb to disease. Perhaps the gravest wounds, however, have been those to the soul and the mind: memories of the horrors of war that ravage the present, as they do for a friend of mine who fought in Vietnam. To this day he struggles to sleep through the night, and often spends hours in his armchair, battling demons only he can see. Others like him have returned home from duty only to take their own lives, overwhelmed by an agony unseen and, too often, unattended.
Theologians, heads of state, military commanders, conscientious objectors and pacifists have all wrangled over conflict and its consequences; soldiers’ loved ones speak to war with even greater authority. The Catholic Church, well aware of “the evils and injustices that accompany all war … insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from (this) ancient bondage. … All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2307-2308).
Yet the church also recognizes that in our broken world, where discord and hatred thwart even the most basic forms of human interaction, “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed” (Catechism, 2308).
And for that reason, “those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are the servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace” (Catechism, 2310).
Because we are sinners, “the threat of war hangs over (us) and will so continue until Christ comes again” (Gaudium et Spes, 78). But our hands and hearts shouldn’t slacken in fatalism: we are at the same time called to “vanquish sin by a union of love,” and to “(build) up ceaselessly” a peace forged from justice and charity (Gaudium et Spes, 78).
Only God knows how long our campaign will last, but in him its outcome is certain: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, not shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4).
And until then, I lift up my hands to the Lord in gratitude for those who have demonstrated a love unsurpassed — “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13) — and I pray they now rest in the arms of a Commander who says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. … Come, share your master’s joy” (Mt 25:21).
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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