History is best learned in person. While I was temporarily stationed on Crete in support of the ongoing conflict in Libya, I had a chance to visit a local museum that featured Cretan history from ancient times to the present. There was a large room devoted to the Battle of Crete, where the forces of Nazi Germany first fought a naval engagement, and then invaded Crete in one of the largest parachute drops in history. While Germany did successfully invade, it came at a great cost, and the Germans were hesitant to use parachute tactics in the future.
The newspaper above has a few interesting titles. First, its a good reminder that things weren’t all that certain in 1941 in Europe. Losing Crete, and followed by a massive German invasion of Russia soon after, left Europe’s position pretty uncertain. It’s easy to read history now and say “Well, its obvious the US would prevail,” but at the time it wasn’t so certain. I also had to smile at the “Capture of Fallujah” headline, since Fallujah continues to be as important back then as it is in modern times.
Walking in the nearby cemetery I found graves from both Allied and Axis powers. The graves are simple. I don’t recognize any of the names. I know the facts of the battles they fought in, but the actual people, outside of a few significant generals and admirals, are unknown to me.
I suspect that this is the same feeling many Americans get walking through Arlington National Cemetery. Sure, if you have a loved one buried there, its a different feeling. But most people don’t, and during Memorial Day, its hard to know what we’re supposed to feel about the graves we walk by. Sad? Respectful? Mournful?
I think the reason its difficult is because we’re taught history from an events perspective, especially for wars. These groups of people, using these weapons, fought over this place on a map, and this group won. But the truth is that each of those people that fought have a back story. A loved one at home. A family that misses them. They are fighting for many different reasons. Maybe they were drafted, or maybe they enlisted because they really believe in their country. Maybe they joined to climb further in the ranks, or maybe this is a one-and-done enlistment.
When we get the chance to hear these personal stories, they stick with us. You can’t read the book Unbroken (or watch the movie) and not be moved by it. Same goes for stories like Hacksaw Ridge or even Black Hawk Down. It’s easy to gloss over history in a cold, calculating way when its presented as figures, numbers, and geography, but its a lot harder when we hear about the individual people behind the battles. We identify with people.
So this Memorial Day, I encourage people that often struggle with “How am I supposed to react” to take the time to learn one story. Learn about the in-depth story of someone that gave their life for their country. Talk to a veteran about someone they knew that died fighting for their country. Make that individual connection. Don’t get too worried about the big picture stuff, instead, focus on one individual story. That will make it much more personal and meaningful.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.