The persistence of memory

  • Published
  • By Capt. Joseph D. Langan
  • Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Warfighting Education Directorate
59 bodies passed in front of me over the span of six months. All were enclosed within aluminum transfer cases, all were draped with immaculate and heavily starched star-spangled banners, and all passed by under the salutes of those who trod across a few acres of noisy concrete to pay their respects. They all wore a uniform. They all died for a cause, willingly embraced and executed by millions of their comrades. They all had parents.
Early on in my deployment, I tried to sear the specific details of each ceremony in my mind, so as to honor each of these men as individuals rather than as a metal case in a very, very long line of metal cases. As a new father, I couldn't help but focus first on their childhoods. I thought about the expression on each of their parents' faces as they took their first steps. I thought about how each must have had a moment of emerging cognition that we all share, when they first wondered what was over the horizon, or when they first looked up at the stars on a dark, clear night. I thought about how it must have felt for each to walk the familiar streets of their homes, whether they lay in Brooklyn or Boise. I thought about where they might have been when they chose to enlist to fight for an idea - an idea far bigger than themselves, and an idea for which Americans young and old have been fighting since the 18th century.

Ultimately, despite my earnest effort, it proved impossible to etch all their imagined stories within my memory in a permanent way, and it caused me to consider the roll of memory in a larger sense; how it shapes our vision of ourselves, our past, and, collectively, how it shapes our nation.

My thoughts turned, somewhat inexplicably, to Frank Buckles, the last U.S. veteran of World War I, who died this year at the age of 110. As an ambulance driver, did he ever witness a similar scene 93 years ago? If so, did he think any of the same thoughts that now drifted across my mind? Had those recollections faded into a far, dusty corner of his mind, or had he written down his experiences and kept the memories alive?

I stood there, eyes caged, with the harsh Arabian sun on my neck. I felt the granulated pavement underneath my boots. I heard the piercing whine of the auxiliary power unit of the C-5 Galaxy onto which the transfer cases were being loaded. I saw the early-morning light flicker through the fan blades of each engine on the giant aircraft, slowly wind milling, casting oscillating shadows on us all.

The six metal cases were crisply carried onto the waiting aircraft, dwarfed in the yawning cargo compartment, in between the salutes of thirty mortuary technicians, hospital staff, aerial porters, aircraft maintainers, security forces, wing leadership, a chaplain, and finally the pilot and crew of the aircraft that would take them on the longest leg of their final journey. An hour later, the cargo doors closed, the behemoth lumbered off the ramp, and used every ounce of power it had to heft its mass into the air and eventually over the horizon.

I stood on the ground, trying to burn each and every facet of the event into my memory. Knowing that this effort, like the ones before, would be ultimately fruitless, writing down my recollections seemed the best option. The military exists in a culture where we all try to find our own personally appropriate and lasting way to memorialize great sacrifices, even as the institutions we serve seek to do so as well. We hold ceremonies of exquisite crispness, followed by a sense of awkwardness at its conclusion, as those in formation disperse and transition back to their daily responsibilities while struggling to comprehend, internalize, and memorialize what they just witnessed.

It may seem like the cultural memory of our nation is forever imprinted with a decade of conflict and sacrifice resulting from over two million deployments, and many more millions of family members left to endure the heartache back home. A day may come in the history of our nation when we look back on these events, when scholars and students alike try to capture the tremendous sacrifices all of us have made since 11 September 2001. But when that time comes, when we sit down to tell our grandchildren about what it was like to fly across the Atlantic to fight a war in a distant, unfamiliar country, just like so many before us, we may find that the important details of our experiences that seem so poignant now have irrevocably faded across the decades.

While Skype and Facebook are wonderful tools to keep connected over long distances, they lack the permanence of letters sent home during previous wars, threatening the historical record. So, I challenge each Airman (and Soldier, Sailor, Marine) to write down what you have seen and done. Record your thoughts, your struggles, your worries, and your triumphs, because as difficult and even painful as it may be, future generations...and your future self... will thank you. Write it down, because one of us is a future Frank Buckles, the last surviving veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, or New Dawn. But most importantly, write it down, so that you will remember the fallen, remember what it felt like to honor them, and keep at bay the bitter erosion of memory.

For my part, I remember the fluttering fan blades, the gritty concrete, the howling machinery in every direction. I remember a collection of white vans, driven by silent and stone-faced Airmen. And I remember six flag-draped caskets, carried one after another onto a giant aircraft, secured with care and surety, and flown westward, their path lit by a swiftly rising sun.