Last fall I moved 60 miles north of New York City into the entirely different world of New York State. My adopted small town has a fair amount of history associated with it, going back even before George Washington’s time. Like many such towns, there is some tension between longtime residents and newcomers, many of whom are expatriate Manhattanites who came here looking for a more affordable place to live. I’m one of them.
The arrival of the Manhattanites has had some predictable effects, like higher real estate values. Main Street has sprouted an upscale restaurant and a hipster coffee shop replete with the usual postings for performances by activist folksingers and for community groups to get together and save a world threatened by American militarism, consumerism, and just plain “ism.”
The old timers hold on, though, and there is no clearer sign of their presence than the hall on Main Street that is home to posts of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Marine Corps League. It’s just a few hundred yards from the coffee shop. On its lawn are several memorials to America’s war dead going back as far as World War I. They have a simple and sad eloquence, and they make a striking contrast to the postings at the coffee shop, which are homogenous in their hostility to all things military.
The coffee shop patrons have a right to their politics, of course, and they are not alone in being upset about the leadership of the country or the state of the world. But what is missing from their critiques is humility. You would think they had actually served in the military and had some better idea how to do things. Of course they didn’t, and of course the most idealistic of them (if that is the right word) declare that criticism is beside the point: they are against standing armies of any kind, against war and militarism and all that. They live in a country that makes such illusions affordable, because a small minority paid dearly to preserve the gift of freedom.
The humility one feels as a civilian who never served in the military is not easily described. My father served in the Air Force in the late 1950s and my brother is a Marine reservist, but that is as near as I’ve come. In college I avoided ROTC and thought of the military as only slightly more appealing than the priesthood. Though the son of a passionately patriotic father — who was not immune to pounding the dinner table to make a point, always on America’s behalf — I felt no stirring in my blood about the military other than the fear of duty and death, and the curtailment of individual liberty.
Humility is not something we go and seek; it comes to us, like wisdom, if it comes at all. We don’t get instruction in humility as we do in tolerance and politeness and obedience. We get experience. If we’re lucky, it’s experience that doesn’t leave us maimed like some who have worn the uniform of this country. Such men often count themselves lucky, remembering their even less fortunate brethren who are buried in a thousand places around the country and overseas.
In small towns like mine you can hurry past memorials to them on Main Street, on your way to work, and not think much about it. But whenever you are reminded that your own work has more to do with necessity than with duty, honor, or country, an emptiness descends on the afternoon.
Not to worry — we have our health. Who would be fool enough to risk that for such abstractions? This is the age of the individual.
If so, it is only because of those who lie all around us. Memorial Day belongs to them, though it’s really the country that belongs to them, as there would be no country without them. There would certainly be no hipster coffee shops.
So America is stalked by spirits, as any great nation must be. We do well to be haunted, and would do better still if we were haunted more often.
Paul Beston is a writer in New York.