There are many heroes in life. Today we honor those who defend our nation by arms.
Like most Americans, for the past two months my family and I have watched, with respect and sorrow, the stories of nurses, doctors, and other staff at hospitals, on the front lines of helping patients suffering, and often dying from, Covid 19. We know the caregivers who show up to take care of older people who live in our building, despite all risks. We speak with the men, and sometimes women, who deliver groceries and meals to us, and to our neighbors on lockdown. And every night at 7 pm, when New Yorkers go to their windows to applaud, bang on pots, ring chimes, and use an astonishing array of horns and other noisemakers to salute the front line workers in this pandemic, our dog runs out on the terrace to join in by howling and barking. We clap. Gratitude is always a virtue, and it is nice to see the neighbors teaching it, directly, to our children.
In the course of this national crisis, who among us has not contemplated just how impressive is the toughness, and the willingness to take risks, that the workers who continue to interact with the public have shown? This is a moment where “just doing your job,” adds up to more than just doing your job. Because where there is usually tedium and low pay, for the past 10 weeks there has been the real threat of catching a virus and dying. Many have, in fact, died. That is especially true here in New York City, where our elected officials were stunningly indifferent to the safety of ‘essential workers’ who use public transportation, until about two weeks ago, when they decided to actually clean the disease-spreading subways. That is to say nothing about their failure to equip police officers with masks, and to ensure that public hospitals had equipment.
It is a fine thing for those who earn a living at a laptop, to get over the not so subtle contempt they often have for who show up and get things done, at minimum wages, even though bad things could happen.
And yet…. it behooves us to remember that not all actions in face of risk, are the same. It is possible to appreciate workers who carry on, without conflating them or their efforts with the brave and necessary actions taken by military men and women in war time.
So it rankled a bit on Friday, when the NPR host opened his show nattering on about how this Memorial Day was unique and special. Why? Not, of course, because he had any newfound respect for the actions and sacrifices of men of arms, in the course of our nation’s wars.
No, Brian Lehrer, who never met a conflict he thought was worth fighting; who rarely articulates sympathy for the American side in the wars he has lived through, announced in sonorous tones that we should be thinking about the first responders, health care providers and other service personnel who have died in the course of the epidemic through which we are living.
With all due respect, the entire point of Memorial Day is to recall the deaths of American men, and more recently, women, often the young and fit, with their lives ahead of them, who joined our armed forces, and fought in one or another conflict, to preserve America, our values, liberties, and way of life. This is the moment to honor their valor and sacrifices. We honor the boys who ran ashore at Point du Hoc to end World War II; the men in the frigid snows of Korea; draftees who did not dodge Vietnam; the young men and women who were so angered by 9/11 that they enlisted and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We honor them, because a great nation must project power in the world. And that has a cost. And the cost is often the lives of the best and boldest of our young people.
And if we must add politics to the mix on Memorial day, perhaps the issue to ponder, is how to ensure that when our political leadership determines that war is necessary, they will fight to win, and then leave. Because asking citizens to make enormous sacrifices of life and limb, when there is no real plan, or clear sense of what winning means, is not terribly honorable.