Scattered clusters of people stand along the Memorial Day parade route in a Midwestern-American city. Small clusters. Dark clouds hang overhead, and the smell of rain is in the air—which might explain the lack of a crowd, except that it was also sparse like this last year, under a blue sky.

A high school band marches by, playing a stirring rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They’ve worked hard putting the arrangement together, practicing for weeks along the residential streets near the school; and they are spot on, impressive. Onlookers cheer the kids, while others document the occasion with their cell phones and cameras. Soon, a light rain begins as a local Boy Scout troop passes, and many applaud the boys, while others begin to pocket their phones and cameras to open umbrellas against the drizzle.

Next in line come two antique automobiles conveying a few white-haired, elderly men, some of them in their nineties. The magnetic sign on the passenger door of the lead car reads: “Veterans of Foreign Wars.” The old men wave to the people along the street, smiling tired but proud smiles. A handful of onlookers wave back or give the veterans a quick thumbs-up. Two or three actually set down their open umbrellas and applaud. The rest, a majority of them, simply glance at the jalopies and their passengers for a moment, then crane their necks to make out the affiliation of the next school band now marching toward them.

And the cell phones and cameras reappear.

I’d like to say that this scenario is fictional, perhaps one I might have culled from an early draft or a work-in-progress. But it isn’t. I’ve just returned from this year’s Memorial Day parade in my home city, and this is pretty much what I witnessed, albeit along one segment of the route. I have heard that it was more populous near the beginning, which is encouraging to a point. And friends in other towns and cities report on Facebook that their crowds have been large and enthusiastic. So perhaps, and hopefully, my experience was not a common one.IMAG0831

Still, what I saw this morning along my stretch of the route is unsettling when one considers the meaning behind the holiday. And I write this from the vantage point of self-reflection, because I am not innocent of neglect by any stretch. During my life, I’ve missed far more Memorial Day parades and commemorations than I’ve made. Moreover, I spent years distrusting my government, and often stood ashamed of my country’s foreign policy conduct overseas. And with regard to several of these past instances, I remain unconvinced that military force was entirely necessary or justified—certainly not at the cost of lives lost or a nation’s reputation.

But none of this is any matter. For Memorial Day is not a celebration of our government. Nor, conversely, is it a day set aside to second-guess the decisions of that government. It is instead a commemoration of the fallen soldiers and sailors, who, incidentally, did not make policy, and all too often did not even volunteer their services. Their lot, if not always their desire, was to serve the nation’s cause and its citizens, and ultimately to render, in Lincoln’s famous words, their “last great measure of devotion” to them both.

Of course, beautiful though this phrase might be, it only tells part of the story. It is easy, and certainly understandable, to color a war story in a way that underscores certain clear-cut, almost mythical aspects of virtue and sacrifice to a cause. Homer’s life work revolved around this idea. And Shakespeare himself noted the tendency to embellish in Henry V, when King Harry assures the “band of brothers” about to fight alongside him at Agincourt that:

He that shall see this day and live old age will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors …. Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, and say ‘These wounds I had on Cripsin’s day.’ Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot but he’ll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day. (My italics)

In the retelling of comparatively modern conflicts, the “advantages” conjured often include the suggestion that those who perish in battle do so purely for cause and country. Lincoln’s notion of the “last great measure of devotion” offered up at the field of Gettysburg comes to mind here. And doubtless this is true in many, many cases. But while the conduct of war—and especially its supreme sacrifice—might be explained, and justified, within the ethical parameters of politics and patriotism, it is a far more insular, personal experience in the field. Most combat veterans that I have spoken with over the years have, in candid moments of reflection, revealed a truer, more poignant reality: They may well have joined up with lofty, patriotic intentions in the beginning, but they soon discovered that, in the thick of the fight, their primary affiliation is to their comrades. It is unit-based. Buddy-based. They guard one another’s backs, and often give their lives, because, in an existential sense, they are all that each other have.

William Manchester, in his World War II memoir, Goodbye, Darkness, illustrates the tragic concurrence of both patriotic and personal motives in a brutally honest slice-of-life scene from his experience in the Pacific. He and his fellows, together a seasoned band of “Raggedy Ass Marines,” are pinned down behind the relative safety of a seawall along the Oroku peninsula on the island Okinawa. Scrambling over the wall to mount a frontal attack at this stage in the battle would prove pointless, as the incessant Japanese machine gun fire would shred Manchester and the others within the first couple of yards. The only realistic chance for turning things around is on the far right flank, and that sector is manned by another unit entirely, the First Battalion of Marines.

Into this volatile mix steps a new second lieutenant, “Tubby” Morris, whom Manchester remembers from officer training at Quantico. As it happens, this is Morris’ first combat experience, and his relatively spotless uniform contrasts ominously with the filthy, threadbare state of the men now under his command. He wants to prove himself at the worst possible time. After an initial, ridiculous confrontation with a recalcitrant Manchester over “proper military courtesy” due him, Morris reveals his plan to lead the men “over the top.” As Manchester recalls:

He actually said ‘over the top.’ We didn’t talk like that. He must have heard that from this father …. The implication of what he had said hit me. I whispered, ‘You mean over this wall?’ He nodded once, a quick jerk of his head …. I tried again, earnestly: ‘Going up there would be suicide. The First Bat’s down there,’ I said, pointing. ‘Give them a chance to turn the Nip’s flank and roll up those machine gun nests.’ He growled, ‘What’s the matter with this battalion?’ I said, ‘We’re pinned down, so the action is on the flanks.’ I could see I wasn’t convincing him …. Rising in one swift motion, he wiped his hands on his sturdy thighs, stood with arms akimbo, and barked: ‘Men, I know you’d like to stay here. I would myself. But those yellow bastards down the beach are killing your buddies.’ He didn’t even realize that a combat man’s loyalty is confined to those around him, that as far as the Raggedy Ass Marines were concerned the First Battalion might as well have belonged to a separate race.

As it turns out, Lieutenant Tubby Morris—believing somehow that “his” men will follow him recklessly, patriotically, over the seawall—scrambles up and stands above them, beckoning with dramatic flourish, but only for an instant, until the nearest enemy gunner stitches him “vertically, from forehead to crotch.” Ironically, shortly after Morris plummets into the arms William Manchester and dies, the men hear cheering on their right. The First Battalion has successfully turned the Japanese flank.

Probably the most telling gesture occurs in the moments after, when, in spite of the green lieutenant’s impulsive, ill-conceived scramble up the seawall at Oroku—an act which, if the others had emulated, would have resulted in wholesale massacre—the Raggedy Ass Marines treat him with the deepest respect in death. Manchester describes the scene:

I looked away, feeling queasy. My blouse was wet with gore. Mo Crocker and Dusty Rhodes took Tubby from me and gently laid him out. There was no malice in the section. They mourned him as they would have mourned any casualty. They—and I above all—had merely been unwilling to share his folly.

Simply put, it was a private matter among soldiers, not open to interpretation by the untested.

Which is sort of the impression I took away this morning, when I saw the old, battle-tested men riding by in those antique cars. Please know that I am not boasting when I say I was one of the onlookers who set down my umbrella to applaud them. It was an odd moment, hearing the sound of my own clapping and that of only a few others, and wondering at the same time what it all meant. To be honest, I really don’t know know why I applauded while so many others did not. As I alluded before, I’m not blindly patriotic. I’m not a hawk either. But I am a historian with a sentimental streak. And I know—by way of study, and also from reading the works of authors like Manchester, Tim O’Brien, and others—the scope of peril that these individuals in the jalopies faced during their youth.

I know, too, that each of them could compile a long list of their comrades who didn’t make it back home.

Of course, knowing is not the same thing as understanding, and perhaps this is an inescapable deficit that I share with the parade-goers who didn’t acknowledge the old men this morning. Those of us who never have experienced combat firsthand haven’t any conception of what it means to have served, and to have sacrificed, in that capacity. But we can only watch, perhaps awestruck, as history embodied passes by us in the form of these aging veterans. No matter what our personal convictions regarding national policy, war, or the course of history might be, we can at least bear witness to the lives and deaths—and the contributions these commonplace yet extraordinary individuals made on behalf of their country and, necessarily, for each other.