Thoughts on Honor, Service, and Memory

Last Friday, we laid my mom to rest in a beautiful cemetery in Maryland. It was at once one of the most difficult and most natural things I’ve ever done. Jewish tradition holds that helping to bury someone — literally picking up a shovel and heaving earth onto their grave — is among the highest order of mitzvot (good deeds) that one can perform, as it is the one affirmative act that can come with absolutely no expectation of the same favor in return.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that the following day at Arlington National Cemetery, where my daughters, their mother, their grandmother, and I went to pay our respects to my late father-in-law, among others. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we arrived just as volunteers from Wreaths Across America were finishing laying 64 tractor-trailers’ worth of wreaths on every grave (except those indicating a religious belief that would object to a wreath) and along every wall of every court in the columbarium.

Every one of the 400,000+ people interred at Arlington dedicated all or part of his or her life to the defense of the United States. The vast majority of graves and niches are marked by identical white stones, with no visual or location preference given based on rank, length of service, or manner of death.

Most of the grave markers also bear emblems of belief. Christianity is, unsurprisingly, the most visible, but you don’t have to turn your head or cast your eyes very far from any given vantage point to find a Star of David, a nine-pointed star of the Baha’i faith, a Sikh Khanda, the Star & Crescent of Islam, an infinity symbol, the Nuclear Atom that has come to symbolize affirmative Atheism, and many of the other 50+ emblems of belief currently approved for use by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

A large number of markers indicate particular honors, awards, and details about the military lives they commemorate. These details, taken in combination with the emblems above them, depict an overwhelming algebra of faith, honor, courage, service, and sacrifice. Prisoners of war, recipients of Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, of every faith, of every rank, from every branch of the service.

Some stones are larger, not because they are of greater importance, but because they mark more than one grave. Young men and women who died together in a helicopter crash, for example, buried together because their remains couldn’t be definitively separated from those of their fallen comrades.

Most of these grave markers featured more than one emblem. The one that hit me the hardest had a Latin cross above the first row of three names, a Star & Crescent above the next row of two, and a Star of David above the last one. Three Christians, two Muslims, and a Jew who served together, died together, and were buried together.

So the next time you hear some blowhard who wants you to vote him more power than he deserves talking about those people, who should be hated or marginalized or excluded or mistrusted, the next time you read a story or witness an incident of overt hostility toward someone who Isn’t Like Us, please remember that there are far, far more of those people who have taken a bullet for you and your country than there are who have actively attacked it, far more who continue to fight for peace and protect the future than those who would see it destroyed.