The Iraqi city of Ramadi has fallen again into the hands of the Islamic State, a group born of al Qaeda in Iraq. That this terrorist organization, whose brutality needs no description, has retaken a city once fought for by American soldiers troubles me. I served two deployments in Ramadi, fighting al Qaeda. Comrades died in that fight. I was shot in Ramadi. My initial reaction, like that of many veterans, is to ask what the hell it was all for, when nothing seems to change. The whole endeavor was a costly bloodletting and it seems the price we paid yielded no actual benefit. Yet, Memorial Day is as much a day for reflection as it is for remembrance and commemoration. And in reflecting, I have had to sit back and define exactly what we are memorializing on this day.
Memorial Day is about honoring those who died fighting for our country. Often those memories — and the honor we attribute — are anchored to a specific place. It makes sense: soldiers fight and die in a physical, tangible environment. Invariably somewhere that is far from home. Human nature makes us hold onto that tangibility for memory. Okinawa, Antietam, the Chosin Reservoir, Ia Drang and Belleau Wood are just a handful of names that evoke the weight of battles long since past. I have a reverence for those names, those places. We all do to a point: We bestow these places with an unconscious solemnity based on how many died there. As imperfect as it is, this is the way we measure any particular fight. Certain places become emblematic, normally where the fighting was at its most ferocious. I am often asked where I was wounded. I always respond Ramadi, though technically it was in the middle of farmland between Ramadi and Fallujah. Giving the technical answer, however, loses something in translation. Saying Ramadi instills a sense of significance in people's minds. Our mission that day was a function of what started in the city, but had spilled out into the periphery.
Memorializing a place because of the weight associated with it is problematic on two fronts — it sets up a partial fallacy while ignoring what I believe to be another critical component that is often overlooked: Time.
The partial fallacy is in how we tie the significance of a soldier's last valiant action to the place where it happened. A soldier might die taking or defending a critical hill, for example, but they do not lay down their life just for the hill. No one joins the military to fight for a specific piece of terrain, city or inanimate object. We join to serve our country, which is accomplished by finishing the missions we are called upon to take. Viewing warfare as an extension of diplomacy by other means, soldiers are the ultimate executors of the national political will. A specific mission may well include the taking of a particular hill, but the soldier is not there for that specific piece of ground. They are there because the mission required them to be.
The other component we ignore is time. Once death is attached to a place and its significance established in our minds, it is meaningful from then on. It is hard to think of a permanent, physical place as having only temporary relevance in time when blood has been spilt there. There is a reason why the World War I battlefields of a century ago have such special relevance. The problem is, holding permanent unyielding sentiment for a place can override better judgment.
I ruminate on all of this when I hear calls to reintroduce U.S. combat troops to Iraq because of recent events in Ramadi. Many of the justifications for such action are not centered on military strategy, U.S. foreign policy or what would be best for Iraq. Instead, they are invoked by the fact that American lives were spent to win Ramadi in the past. The question remains: If Ramadi is back in the hands of militants, what did American soldiers die for in the first place?
My initial thoughts were informed by that exact reasoning. However, further questions immediately sprang to mind. I settled on two. Does the enemy's taking of a place that people died fighting for disparage their memory, and, should we let it influence our actions? For the first question I concluded no, though it is painful. The soldiers who gave their lives accomplishing a mission had an effect. Those effects were not limited to a single place. Wars are waged over an area and influenced by all the infinite actions that occur in that space at that time in history. An enemy's success in the present, even if it is in that same place, does not take away from a soldier's effect in the past. In this light, I find it hard to justify sending more soldiers to fight, where some will inevitably die, solely in an effort to protect the memories of those already dead.
Those memories do not need physical protection. This is why we have a day like today. Memorial Day is our formal acknowledgement of our comrade's sacrifice. We remember their actions and their willingness to give all to accomplish the mission. These memories are of course tied to place, but it should not be the defining feature. What happens now in a location such as Ramadi does not debase the past actions of those that fell there. They defined themselves outside of place, in service to country, and that is what I personally want to memorialize.