I admit I have a weakness for warriors, both in real life and in books. In real life I married a 6’2 sailor who boxes and sword-fights in his free time; between the pages of a book, I am drawn to Bernard Cornwell’s unapologetically alpha male soldiers and C.S. Forester’s moody naval captains. The men in my own books tend to be fighters: Mistress of Rome has a terse gladiator for a hero; Daughters of Rome has a valiant Praetorian Guard and an ex-rebel chieftan; Empress of the Seven Hills has a tough and foul-mouthed career legionary.
But as much we all like to sigh over warriors, it’s good to remember that the soldiers, sailors, and fighters of the world give up a lot for that gritty-but-glamorous image. Memorial Day is the day when we are supposed to remember that, but sometimes we forget–we’re too happy to have a three-day weekend complete with barbecues, beers, and baseball games. And that’s ok: fire up the grill, throw on some steaks, relish your long weekend. But take a moment to remember why.
Because all throughout history, no matter what era they serve in, warriors pay a price.
The nightmares. Sweating inside the wooden horse at Troy wondering if the Trojans are going to catch on and burn you alive; waking up in a cold sweat remembering that Saxon sword coming down at the Battle of Hastings; the hazy flashes of the bullets coming at you over a sand dune in Afghanistan. Bad dreams and broken sleep and apologizing to your wife at 3am because you thought she was that Union soldier coming at you with a bayonet, and you smacked her across the nose before you fully woke up. Bad dreams are a constant for warriors.
The schedule. Because whether you’re a knight with an oath to a French lord during the Hundred Years War or a Marine with a set of orders in hand, “I’m kinda busy right now” is not an excuse. You still have to pack up and head out to fight, whether your kid has a Disney-themed birthday party that morning, your daughter is getting betrothed to a wool merchant that afternoon, or your castle is under siege that night. The schedule for warriors is harsh, and always has been.
The stress. Not just on warriors but on their families–medieval wives wondering if their husbands are ever coming home from Crusade; Army wives standing frozen as the doorbell rings, wondering if this time they’ll be looking at a military chaplain with a somber expression and some very bad news. Stress on the warriors themselves: the hours are long and grueling whether you’re marching through Vietnamese jungles or standing watch on a Viking longship, the food sucks whether it’s cooked over a legionary campfire in Parthia or comes from a WWI mess hall; and whether the letters from home arrive on horseback or via email, there are never enough of them.
These are the things warriors deal with, for the most part stoically. These are the things to remember on Memorial Day–not to mention the dead of all wars past and present, the men and women who struggled with the stress and the schedule and the nightmares as best they could, and went home in a box anyway.
My husband and I spent our last Memorial Day apart–he was deployed very far away from me, and over the last seven months we’d had probably fifteen total days together. We’re luckier this year: we’ve got fried chicken crisping on the stove, and the Sox game on in the background, and nothing to do all day but talk, laugh, and enjoy our long weekend. But no matter where we are on Memorial Day, we always take a moment to remember what this day really means, and drink one quiet toast:
“To all the fallen–our honored dead.”