As Memorial Day rolls around, it’s time for my annual Harlan Miller article. Mr. Miller, he was known as Mr. Miller to many, was an impoverished recluse with no family. He made St. Paul’s his spiritual home, and its people his family. He was severely wounded in North Africa during WWII, spent years in hospitalized recovery, and was never able to live a normal life thereafter. He died and is buried in the city cemetery.
Memorial Day is reserved to honor those who gave their lives in the military service of their country. Not every one who gave their lives died in battle. Some, like Harlan, were killed off bit by bit, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. They didn’t die on the beach or in the trenches, but they were killed by war just the same. Harlan, and those like him, were not heroes. They were just doing their duty, often wondering what that duty was, and trying to stay alive in order to come home.
My dad was not Harlan. He was a naval officer serving on destroyers in the Pacific. He never talked about it except in abstract ways. The only time I ever saw him cry was when he and I toured an old destroyer, now a museum piece, on which he had served. I have no idea what the story was behind those tears, but some part of him was left in the Pacific, never to return home. Harlan and my dad were part of what we have labeled The Greatest Generation. Maybe they were. Now we have generations of soldiers killed in battle, and veterans who have returned home partly killed from continuous decades of wars, each one of questionable justification. No one calls them greatest, but they have done their duty just the same.
So, this weekend, as we place flags on graves, and go to patriotic parades, let us also remember those who have been killed by war one piece at a time. Let us not be glib with superficial praise of American heroics. Let us pause to reflect on the cruelty and injustice of war itself, asking God’s forgiveness for romanticizing it. Let us honor the Harlans of this world for the sacrifices they have made not only with flags and flowers, but by doing what we can to give them back their lives.