On Memorial Day in 2006 I went to the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France. It was partly cloudy and cool with a deep blue sky, as days at the beginning of European summers often are. Speakers in French and English remembered U.S. war dead from the First and Second World Wars. Then two buglers at opposite corners of the grounds played the haunting sound of Taps separated by a single measure. As the last note floated across white stones, four F-16s performed the missing man formation, one aircraft pulling into the vertical as if climbing toward heaven. I can never endure such an assault on sense and emotion without shedding a tear.
The Lorraine American Cemetery contains 10,489 interred and 444 more memorialized as still missing in action. Most of them died in the fall of 1944 as the Allies pushed the Germans back toward the Rhine. In November, the U.S. Third Army liberated the towns of Metz and St. Avold before turning north to the Ardennes Forest in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Both towns’ mayors were on hand to lay wreaths and show a gratitude that still runs deep. We mingled with locals, but in a particularly moving display of unity, also in attendance were many Germans who came to recognize the sacrifice represented by the serenity of 114 acres of French countryside. That sacrifice is something I often consider, particularly around this time of year.
The essence of “sacrifice” is that nothing is asked in return, and so I am never one to lament a lack of attention on such things during Congressionally-declared three-day weekends. The essential part of liberty is that one can choose to do as one wishes. But on this day I think about those in cemeteries like Lorraine and those I have known who have given, as our greatest president said, “the last full measure.” I think of my friend Paul “Z” Ziemba whose crystal eyes melted girls’ hearts and who on one dark night in Texas flew his B-1 into the side of mountain. I think of Bryson “Moose” Phillips who had just had a son and who, after achieving his goal of becoming an F-16 demonstration pilot, misjudged a maneuver and crashed into the trees near Kingsville, Texas. And I think of my friend and mentor Dillon “McFly” McFarland, possibly the most naturally talented aviator I’ve known, who on a day not unlike that day in France, flew his perfect airplane into the salt flats of Utah because rain the day before turned it into a mirror reflecting the deep blue he and I loved to traverse.
Because I have witnessed it, and because I know that fatal mistakes take those we know far too often, I also know that death in war or the service of our nation is rarely heroic. Treating it only as such masks the ultimate costs of war and its preparation. It attempts to glorify that in which there is no glory. It also misses another point entirely.
What gives meaning to the tens of thousands of white headstones all over the world is that they do not represent the final resting place of heroes. They represent an idea we lose touch with only at our great peril—that ordinary men and women just like you and me, when necessary, are capable of summoning the courage to do the extraordinary. When I hear the last note of Taps drifting like a mist, feel in my chest the roar of a jet engine I will forever long for, or recall the image of a cross reflected on the water of a salt flat, that is what I know.