Peter Collier: Memorial Day ain't what it used to be





[Mr. Collier wrote the text for "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty" (Workman, 2006).]

Once we knew who and what to honor on Memorial Day: Those who had given all their tomorrows, as was said of the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, for our todays. But in a world saturated with selfhood, where every death is by definition a death in vain, the notion of sacrifice today provokes puzzlement more often than admiration. We support the troops, of course, but we also believe that war, being hell, can easily touch them with an evil no cause for engagement can wash away. And in any case we are more comfortable supporting them as victims than as warriors.

Former football star Pat Tillman and Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham were killed on the same day: April 22, 2004. But as details of his death fitfully emerged from Afghanistan, Tillman has become a metaphor for the current conflict -- a victim of fratricide, disillusionment, coverup and possibly conspiracy. By comparison, Dunham, who saved several of his comrades in Iraq by falling on an insurgent's grenade, is the unknown soldier. The New York Times, which featured Abu Ghraib on its front page for 32 consecutive days, put the story of Dunham's Medal of Honor on the third page of section B.

Not long ago I was asked to write the biographical sketches for a book featuring formal photographs of all our living Medal of Honor recipients. As I talked with them, I was, of course, chilled by the primal power of their stories. But I also felt pathos: They had become strangers -- honored strangers, but strangers nonetheless -- in our midst.

In my own boyhood, figures such as Jimmy Doolittle, Audie Murphy and John Basilone were household names. And it was assumed that what they had done defined us as well as them, telling us what kind of nation we were. But the 110 Medal recipients alive today are virtually unknown except for a niche audience of warfare buffs. Their heroism has become the military equivalent of genre painting. There's something wrong with that....



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Dalek Dukat - 5/22/2009

As sad as Peter Collier's observations are, they are to be expected. If I remember my Bacevich correctly, something in the order of less than ten percent of the US population is serving or has any ties to the military, and most Americans' ideas about the military are entirely informed by "Rambo" and "Top Gun."

In WWII, the list of celebrities who fought was endless, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, David Niven, Dirk Bogarde, Christopher Lee, William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Jonathan Frid.

Vietnam is lucky to have Ray Kanally (of "Dallas"), Jesse Ventura, R. Lee Ermey to have served there. (as well as Alain Delon, if you include the 1946-54 phase.)

AFAIK, no Hollywood celebrities served in Grenada, Central America, Panama, the Gulf, Somalia, the FRY, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq. The closest was the football player Pat Tillman.

On the other hand, there was barely any mention in the media of the fact that May 15th is the national Police Memorial Day either.

This is what you can expect from a culture that lionizes vapid nonentities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Lauren Conrad.

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