Sadly, it appears that all of the divisiveness and disdain for one another that has become a part of our daily routine is here to stay. Our opinions on all manner of social and political issues are no longer regarded as simply the ideas of thoughtful and well meaning individuals who may simply differ from us. Instead, these personal positions have become labels that signify “whose side we are on” and indeed, in a growing number of cases, markers as to how we should treat one another.
May we, during this week of Memorial Day, take a break from all of the appraisal of each other’s differences? Can we simply pause and think about those who are no longer among us who gritted their teeth, picked up a knapsack and headed to the other side of the world to make the case that our freedom is big enough to protect every person’s ideas? And, while we are at it, may we give thanks to those who made the trip abroad in the name of freedom and who were blessed to return home?
On days like this, like so many of you, I cannot help but think of my late father and his service to his country. And like so many of your relatives my father was reluctant to talk about his experiences leaving it to me to dig a little out of him and the rest out of long ago latched footlockers.
Like so many Mississippians he was a “big ole country boy.” My father’s hometown was hardly a hometown but a fork in the road called Cotton Plant on the Tippah/Union County line. The tenth of eleven children, Daddy spent time in the Ashland, Mississippi camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps doing his part to put a little food on his family’s table during the waning days of the Great Depression.
Like his brothers and sisters before him, he was pushed out of the nest at age 18 and found his way to Mississippi State College (now MSU). There he worked his way through college in the school’s cafeteria and still had time to form a political machine that resulted in his becoming Mayor of Old Main Dormitory’s famous or infamous, Pole Cat Alley.
All of the revelry of his college days came to an abrupt end when my father graduated in the class of 1941 and swapped his mandatory ROTC uniform for the real thing and headed down a trail that lead him through Ireland and into France immediately following the Normandy invasion. It was there in France at the Battle of Brest, a battle that World War II historian David Ambrose called the most useless battle of World War II, that one of the last German sniper bullets fired found my fathers hip. One of his 1941 classmates ribbed my father for years that he couldn’t have been going but one direction to take a bullet there.
He made it home with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a rolling gate that many mistook for cockiness when he walked. In 1944, so the story goes, my father went AWOL from a New York Army hospital in order to get back to Mississippi for the Mississippi State/Ole Miss football game. He chose to bide his time at his beloved State College while he looked for a job and regained his robust strength and vitality at the Dairy Products snack bar (“The DP”), and he no doubt resumed his pre-war pass time of “holding court” at the soon to be revived bull ring.
I have often wondered what it must be like to be a product of our most rural Mississippi places and to hear the call and feel the urge to forego the future in order go to parts unknown to pay the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. Hundreds of thousands of Mississippians and millions of Americans have made that choice.
The World War II heroes are rapidly departing this life. They have been and are being joined by so many more. Scarcely had some World War II survivors unpacked their gear than they were off again to Korea and its intense weather and warfare. Many never returned.
The bravest of my generation plunged head long into the unknown, as they were commanded to do, in a country and a war called Viet Nam. Over 56,000 died, and many more were scarred for life, both mentally and physically, in an effort for which the survivors were never properly thanked by those of us who benefitted most.
Then there have been the American commitments to establishing peace in the Balkans and stopping terrorism in the Middle East at its point of origin.
After all is said and done, millions upon millions of us owe a debt of gratitude to those who sacrificed. In many cases these conflicts have left us with the comforts of the good life and they have left widows, widowers, children, and scars that will last lifetimes for those who served in our behalf. So here at home let there be a truce in our war of words for at least a few hours while we remember those who fought and died for our right to vigorously disagree with each other.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.