For most Americans, the upcoming Memorial Day weekend means nothing more than a chance to grill hot dogs and burgers, drink beer and enjoy a rare paid day off. A few will attend services honoring the men and women killed during our country's many wars, and TV news channels will interview old soldiers, but that won't interfere with most folks' leisure activities.
The reality of Memorial Day is that it's one of the saddest holidays we have, whose honorees are in their graves after having died years before their times, often for causes little understood by them or even the generals who sent them there.
I saw and met quite a few soldiers a few weeks ago in El Paso, Texas when I traveled there on business. El Paso is home to Fort Bliss, one of the Army's largest bases and training grounds. Everywhere I went, soldiers were eating next to me at restaurants, standing in line with me at Starbucks and 7-Eleven, waiting beside me at the airport. They were all strong, proud young men and women with looks of determination in their eyes. Even for a jaded old pacifist like myself, seeing them was inspiring and evoked patriotic feelings.
In the El Paso airport, recorded messages from the mayor and governor played on the public address system, constantly urging civilians to approach the soldiers and thank them for their service. Unsurprisingly, people did in fact thank them — and the soldiers invariably were polite and humble in response.
I've never fully bought the notion that our soldiers in Vietnam or Iraq or Bosnia died to "protect our freedom." That was perhaps true during World War II, when Germany or Japan would have loved to invade and occupy America, but not now, when the wars we fight aren't about defending our freedoms but rather justifying our foreign policy and interference in other nations' internal affairs.
Osama bin Laden didn't order the 9/11 attacks because we cherish freedom, but rather to bring to America a taste of the misery and destruction that our wars have brought to the Middle East and to protest our policy towards Israel.
But I most certainly don't blame the young men and women in military uniforms I met in Texas for the botched foreign policy of the Reagan/Bush and Clinton/Obama eras, no more than Vietnam vets bear the sins of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, the architects of that failed war.
What I do cherish about the soldiers I've spoken with in my life is not their dedication to America — that's unquestionable. What makes them admirable is their loyalty, devotion and protection of their fellow soldiers.
The same kind of loyalty plays out on a smaller scale for many people at their jobs. If it really came down to it, most rank-and-file workers couldn't care less about the millionaire CEO whose portrait hangs on the wall. But they'd fight almost literally to the death to protect their coworkers from harm.
Amplify that feeling 10,000 times and you start to understand why our military men and women deserve all the praise we can give them. With stakes far higher than any workplace, those in our armed forces will do whatever it takes to protect their friends and immediate superiors, even if it costs them their lives.
I've heard it over and over from former soldiers. They're far removed from the generals and politicians making decisions. They afford no particular loyalty to the president or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But place them in harm's way and they'll sacrifice their safety and even their lives if it means their friends and colleagues will be saved.
They don't consider that to be the act of a hero even though such bravery is the definition of heroism. When it came down to it, they died to protect their friends. Examine the stories of most of the 1.4 million Americans estimated to have died in battle since 1776 and you'll probably see the same story over and over.
This is why we celebrate them this weekend and why we should hold their memories dear. They have made the ultimate sacrifice, not for political reasons or even military ideas but rather the preservation of their fellow soldiers.
May God bless them, their families and this wildly imperfect but still amazing nation in which we live.