Over the years, I have been to many military cemeteries, and I am always overcome with waves of emotion. This is especially true of the cemeteries that are filled, not with the tombs of long-lived veterans who earned a military burial for their service, but with the graves of the young who perished in battle. For me the most striking hallowed ground is the Normandy American Cemetery in France. I defy anyone to walk through its more than 170 acres of green grass and white crosses and stars and not feel deeply moved. All told, 9387 American servicemen are buried there, with uniform grave markers, regardless of the rank they held in life. Death strikes us all with the same finality.
The cemetery is one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I have ever visited—a far cry from the pain and torment that led to its creation. Most buried there lost their lives in that fateful landing on the nearby beaches on D-Day or in the fierce battles that immediately followed. I am struck by their ages. You quickly do the math, subtracting date of birth from date of death, and invariably arrive at a number in the high teens or early twenties. You cannot help but think: What might they have accomplished if they had lived? What happened to the loved ones they left behind?
Another striking cemetery can be found halfway around the globe, in a volcanic crater in the hills above Honolulu. Nicknamed Punchbowl, it is a tribute to the sacrifice in our Pacific and Asian wars, not only World War II, but also Korea and Vietnam. Above the bustle of Waikiki, it is a place for meditation on the cost of service with the “courts of the missing”—walls of 28,808 names etched in marble of those who went missing in action or were lost and buried at sea. As an inscription at the cemetery reminds us: “In these gardens are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of the country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God.” “Known only to God” is a phrase that epitomizes a level of service beyond our full comprehension. In war, most deaths are lonely, and leave loneliness behind.
This story is part of Heroes Week, a weeklong celebration of our heroes in the armed forces. Read more veterans stories here.
Excerpted from What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner. © 2017 by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.