If you've never seen the Vietnam war memorial in Washington D.C. it's hard to imagine. How can something so simple as slabs containing names be that powerful – and yet it is. Standing in front of it you see your reflection and the reflection of others viewing the memorial while thousands of names lie before you. It's stark, it's simple, it's powerful.
And for every one of those listed there and those who fell in other wars are friends and family. How do you see beyond the names listed on the wall and in records of other wars? How do you see the massive list printed in yesterday's Doonesbury and appreciate each man and woman as an individual? For each Elena that is no longer with us there is a Kim and a Daniel left behind. There's a Maggie who has no one to sing harmony with. There are communities which feel a hole at least for a little while.
For many of the soldiers who died there are parents and siblings. For others spouses and children. Just go up two degrees of separation and there are millions represented by those names on the wall. Millions of people celebrating "would haves" instead of birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions.
The folks that remember that today was John's birthday don't celebrate it with him. He's not here anymore. Instead they say things like, "John would have been fifty-four today."
Nancy, stands today with her classmates to receive a diploma that her father didn't live to see her get. Instead of a hug from a proud father she has to hear "your dad would have been so proud of you today."
I had a friend who had a flag where his father should have been. It was the flag that had been draped across the coffin of a veteran. Folded carefully into the triangular package and presented to the family. He was proud of his dad and took particular care of the flag. His life time of "would haves" never could make up for the dad he had lost while still a child.