Monthly column published under the title, "The Meaning in a Medal of Honor
— 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