Call me un-American, if you like, but I have a problem with Memorial Day. So many of the speeches and ceremonies seem to celebrate rather than commemorate our war dead, reminding me of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
Owen took his title from an ode by the Roman poet Horace, who idealized dying for one’s country as an aspiration all patriotic young men should share. “Sweet and fitting” is how Horace characterized it. It is sometimes necessary and unavoidable to die in a war. But, as any combat veteran can attest, it is never “sweet and fitting,” and it almost always marks the tragic loss of a young life that never fulfilled its promise.
I am devoting this column to one such life in particular. He was from Myrtle Beach, and his name was Jim Reaves – “like the country singer,” he was fond of pointing out, “only spelled with an ‘a.’ ” We served together in the Marine Corps’ Combined Action Program in Vietnam. As part of a grassroots effort aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people, combined action Marines were sent out in the countryside to train and live with Vietnamese Popular Forces in their home villages.
I first noticed Reaves at the school all newly assigned CAP Marines had to attend before being assigned to a unit. Toward the end of the program, the instructor called for volunteers to go to Papa Company, up near the DMZ, where the program was not yet well established. Reaves had his hand up and was browbeating the man next to him into volunteering as well.
Easily the most self-confident and outgoing of the Marines I served with in Vietnam, Reaves was never one to half-step or let false modesty stand in his way. He was a radio operator who had served in a radio battalion before volunteering for Combined Action. That experience, coupled with reading Leon Uris’ “Battle Cry,” had confirmed him in the belief that communicators are uniformly smarter than other Marines, a position he would good-naturedly defend by the hour.
Always outspoken and opinionated, he was physically imposing as well – blond-haired, solidly built and well over six feet tall. But he was good-natured, and he seemed to be one of those people who always know just what to say and do.
I watched him defuse a fight once, disarming both parties with gentle humor and irony. On another occasion, I watched him resolutely help retrieve a badly decomposed body from a river, a nauseating task requiring more intestinal fortitude than most of us could muster. I think we all admired and respected Reaves. But I remember him most for his wry sense of humor and his obvious intelligence. He was simply smarter than most of the people around him, and he knew it.
I think of Reaves every time I hear Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on a golden oldies radio station. We were not used to ambiguity in our popular music in those days, and it was Reaves who advanced the theory that Billie Joe jumped from the Tallahatchie Bridge because the young female narrator had broken up with him. Reaves could relate. His fiancee had recently sent him a Dear John, appropriating their entire “joint” savings account. But he remained stoic, only exhibiting a marked tendency at odd moments to hum or sing snatches of the Martha and the Vandellas song “Jimmy Mack.” This song seemed to speak to his condition, posing the musical question, “Jimmy Mack, when are you coming back?”
His plan, he once confided to me, was to get out of the Marine Corps to go to college under the G.I. Bill. He had seen enough of the mud and blood. If he came back in service at all, it would be as a Navy officer on a submarine. I can still see him crouched down, hanging by the elbows from an imaginary periscope, mimicking the languid pose Hollywood submarine officers all strike. I think he was serious about college at least, and I count it a great loss he never got to go.
James L. Reaves, Corporal, USMC, was killed on December 4, 1967. He was 19 years old. You can find his name on panel 31E, line 38, of the Vietnam Memorial, along with over 58,000 other names. Each one deserves to be remembered as an individual life that never fulfilled its promise.
Instead, every year at this time, politicians appropriate and romanticize their deaths – along with the deaths of all those who have died in our wars before and since Vietnam – to advance their own political agendas and to ennoble dubious causes. That is what I have against Memorial Day.
Contact Palm, a columnist for the Kitsap (Wash.) Sun, at www.kitsapsun.com.