My earliest memories of the holiday we observe this weekend are set in Winchendon, Massachusetts. My sisters and parents and I would get together with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. We went to Great Aunt Jean’s house for a big cookout. Hot dogs on the grill. Baked beans. Watermelon. It was a day for family, food, and fun.
There were reminders of other reasons that the day was important. Across the street from Aunt Jean’s house was a park, and in that park was a tall pillar with a statue on top of it. On the morning of Memorial Day a column of bent old men in uniforms covered with badges would march across the park, form up around the pillar, and fire rifles into the air after a long moment of silence. I didn’t understand what it all meant. At age six I knew it had something to do with a war, but there was watermelon to eat and cousins to play with. I didn’t spare much thought for the ceremony.
As I grew older I learned more about Memorial Day. I learned that it originated after the Civil War, when our country needed a way to collectively grieve the generation of young men who never returned home from the battlefield. I learned that those old men in the park were veterans of two world wars, and that they marched and fired their rifles in honor of friends who never came home from Europe, or North Africa, or the Pacific. I became friends with men and women who fought in wars, and lost friends. The more of the world I saw the less abstract the celebration became.
This year I have just finished reading a book that continues to break down the wall of abstraction surrounding what Memorial Day means. “The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat Among Warriors” is the journal that Ambassador Jonathan Addleton kept during his yearlong posting in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was senior civilian representative for the U.S. Embassy in Southern Afghanistan, living on base, working closely with military commanders, and traveling around the region on helicopters to meet with contacts.
Ambassador Addleton writes vividly and engagingly, communicating the frustration of working in Afghanistan at that time, the loneliness of being thousands of miles from family, the camaraderie and community that is found in unexpected places, and the general ugliness of war. He reports standing for countless ramp ceremonies, watching as the remains of young service members are carried onto a plane to begin their long journey home. He shares their names, and what he learns of their lives cut short and families left behind. He brings a three dimensional reality to the headlines we all read, of soldiers, airmen, and marines killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He poignantly reminds us that the lost are more than names printed on a page or carved on a wall. They are men and women with hopes and dreams, spouses and kids, likes and dislikes, and that their journeys have now come to a sudden and violent end.
This exploration of the tragedy of war takes a sharp turn to the personal when he describes the horrific events he experienced on April 6, 2013. He describes how his convoy is en route to deliver books to a school, and how they are hit by a car bomb. Ambassador Addleton survives, but his translator Nasemi, Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff, Staff Sergeant Christopher Ward, Sergeant Delfin Santos, and Corporal Wilbel Robles-Santa do not. The reader feels the terror of the moment. The confusion and shock that Addleton feels as he processes what has happened in the hours and days that follow. The deep grief that sets in and colors his remaining months in Afghanistan. His words are breathtakingly honest, and at times painful to read, as he wrestles with what has happened.
Our observations of Memorial Day are often filled with the images and stories of increasingly distant conflicts. The Civil War. The World Wars. Korea. Vietnam. This book reminds us that war, and the tragedy it brings, are far from distant memories. Men and women have paid the highest price that service can ask of anyone, and they have paid it recently and painfully. This book helps us to remember them.
This book also helps us to understand that war robs life from many kinds of people. Yes, there are the tragic losses of those in uniform. But there are also the losses of those who did not wear uniforms or carry guns, but who also paid the ultimate cost for their work. Indeed, there are two walls in the lobby of the State Department bearing the names of 248 of my colleagues, including Anne Smedinghoff, who never got to come home.
There are also the survivors, who come home bearing the often invisible scars of their experiences. They have heard the explosions, smelt the smoke, and held the hands of the dying. They have been forced to ask questions that most of us will never have to, and paid a price that is difficult to understand.
So as we enjoy a long weekend soaked in the early summer sunshine, let us spare a moment or two for memory. For those killed, both those wearing uniform as well as civilians. For those who return home, but bear the at times unbearable weight of memory of the horrors they have witnessed and the colleagues they have lost. Let us not forget them. And let us enjoy our hot dogs and watermelon, as they would surely want us to.
P.S. I think “Dust of Kandahar” is an important read, both for my Foreign Service colleagues who have served in Afghanistan and those who are thinking about serving PSP, as well as for anyone who is interested in learning more about what America’s work in the world looks like on the ground. I can’t praise this book highly enough.