This Memorial Day I’m thinking a bit about Clint Eastwood.
No, not because he’s had a hand in a respectable chunk of war-themed cinema (Kelly’s Heroes, Heartbreak Ridge, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima). Instead, it’s the purpose of this late spring holiday that brings the renowned actor/director to mind.
On this day, of course, Americans are summoned to honor those men and women in uniform who made the ultimate sacrifice defending our country, her liberties, all that is best about her. For me, at least, that evokes one of the most reflective passages from one of the most reflective – albeit violently reflective – films in Eastwood’s oeuvre.
It’s in the final reel of that study of brutality and death, 1992’s Unforgiven: Eastwood’s lead character, semi-retired assassin Will Munny, is grimly dialoguing with a tearful, would-be gunslinger; about murder, about the pitiless bottom-line of taking another human life. Twenty one years after this movie’s release, the bluntness of Munny’s observations stay with me. They freeze me in my tracks every time I hear them again – so obvious, so self-evident, yet so heart-stoppingly brutal when spoken aloud in that sandpaperishly unmistakable voice: “It’s a he– of a thing killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
When, this last Monday of May, we Americans officially pay annual tribute to those who’ve poured out their lives on our behalf, we could do a whole lot worse than personally revisiting the essence of Will Munny’s grieving declaration. The individuals whom, ostensibly, we are “memorializing” on this Memorial Day left it all on those battlefields or training grounds, some far away, some closer, all in the line of duty. They did it because they were called to serve our nation, and in that way, serve each of us.
Yet even for those Americans who bother any longer to acknowledge their devotion — a devotion literally unto their deaths — it can remain notional, remote, sanitized. The scorching reality of those military lives lost, however, is as practical as it can get; for those who’ve perished and those who were waiting for their return: multitudes of young Marines who will never marry sweethearts, young soldiers whose longings for a spouse and children remain forever unfulfilled. Potential families never started.
Not-as-young sailors or airmen who’ll never make it back home to embrace loved ones. Anticipated reunions dissolved to dust.
Empty spots at Thanksgiving Day suppers. Presemts missing from under Christmas trees. Missing presences at graduation ceremonies and family celebrations, in wedding parties.
Dreams for a life after warfare dashed, untapped talents undeveloped, peacetime businesses unfounded, civilian careers unrealized, relationships that formerly could have been, which now will never be.
Once more, tapping that riveting Unforgiven aphorism, slightly modified: Everything they had, everything they were ever going to have in this earthly life — taken away. Blessings and joys the rest of us presumptuously stroll through as part of our taken-for-granted existences – snatched from them; a colossal loss inflicted while they served others.
For you, for me. For those before and those who’ll follow us; those who’ve freely imbibed the grandest that America had to offer; and who will imbibe it someday.