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From Ghosts to Ancestors

Honoring our war dead on Memorial Day

Michael Gruber
May 22, 2020
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Arlington National CemeteryChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When I was in junior high, my grandfather handed me a book in a dark blue binding titled The Devils in Baggy Pants. It was described as “a combat record of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment,” which my grandfather had served in during WWII. Through the pages of that book, I marveled that my grandfather had participated in so many historic and dramatic events throughout the European Theater. He had jumped into Sicily and fought at Salerno; received the Purple Heart at Anzio when he was wounded in the shoulder by rifle fire; participated in the famed Waal River crossing in Holland during Operation Market-Garden; fought in the Bulge and survived the utterly savage Belgian winter while under constant threat of encirclement by German armor. By all accounts, he was fortunate to have lived through the war, and the book left little room for dispute.

After becoming aware of my grandfather’s exploits, the man who up to that point I had known only as a largely emotionally and intellectually vacant man transformed, at least in my eyes, into a mythological hero. Nonetheless, my grandfather was still afflicted from the loss of my grandmother and in the early throes of dementia. As he was slowly losing most of his ability to verbalize and as I didn’t have the wisdom, maturity, or patience to ask the right questions, most of his thoughts and emotional reckoning about the war went with him to his grave.

Nonetheless, my grandfather’s service not only gave me a profound sense of admiration for him, but a deep pride in the fact that my family had contributed in very ultimate ways toward the maintenance of this country’s most sacred values. When I made the choice to enlist after my junior year of high school, it was largely my grandfather’s trials as a paratrooper during WWII and my father’s service in Vietnam that were the biggest influences on my decision. When I graduated Airborne School in 2008, the pinning of jump wings above my name tape by the instructor was among one of the proudest moments of my life.

As I continued in the Army, I deployed twice to Afghanistan with both the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 82nd Airborne Division as a forward observer and spent my entire four-and-a-half years embedded with light dismounted rifle platoons. I experienced the intimate bonds of fraternity forged by men in war, the satisfaction of a well-planned and well-executed mission, the unending boredom and superficial pettiness that surprisingly accompanies war, the unparalleled excitement and terror of combat, and the spiritually corrosive effects of savagery and human depravity. Most painfully, I lost several friends both during and after my service. And I began to realize very quickly that despite being given an initial motivation for my enlistment, I had very few guardrails to help me interpret my experiences when I left the Army and returned home to Minnesota.

What I did not discover until many years after my grandfather’s passing was that in the rear of his history book was a list of all the men who had been killed throughout the regiment’s service in Europe. Among that tragically long list were roughly 40 names that had been neatly underlined and highlighted. Since then, I have often wondered if my grandfather ever made peace with these men he apparently personally knew, or what his special remembrance of them meant. What was that emotional process like? How did his relationship to them change over time as he became a father, a grandfather, and accomplished working man? Most of all, I wondered if he—like me—ever felt haunted by their deaths?

In his text Waking Up from War, Joseph Bobrow writes about the process of transforming ghosts into ancestors. “There is a way a ghost becomes an ancestor, and traumatic experiences become memories,” he writes. “The community provides the connective emotional tissue that holds … The community provides a bigger container in which unrepresented anguish can be represented, reexperienced in a new key, and transformed from a haunting ghost into a memory.”

This process of remembering our war dead is key to observing days of solemn remembrance like Memorial Day; one that focuses not merely on our grief for those lost, but also of the continued beatification and instruction their death provides. Interpreting Memorial Day through the process of transforming our ghosts into ancestors is not merely about taking stock of who has been lost, but also taking stock of how that loss has contributed toward something identifiably honorable, productive, decent, even holy. The process of transforming a ghost into an ancestor necessitates us to understand that the memory of the one lost serves not to torment us by way of guilt, shame, anguish or bereavement, but for their memory to provide us with personal and collective betterment.

This act of communal representation of grief, of transforming a haunting specter into an edifying forebearer, is one that was intuitively understood by the writers of Torah. Everywhere throughout Jewish scripture, there is constant reminder that the present experience of the Israelite people is one always centered in their connection to an ancestral cohort who received covenantal promises, walked through the Red Sea, and received commandments at Mount Sinai. “And who is like your people Israel,” David asks, “the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making for yourself a name for great and awesome things, in driving out nations before your people whom you redeemed from Egypt?” (1 Chr. 17:21) Likewise, God introduces himself to Moses in explicit reference to the Hebrew patriarchs: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6)

Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the importance of familial identification is also stressed. Assuring the genealogical line of the Levitical priesthood is of paramount importance—“so the Lord said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood’” (Num. 18:1). The Abrahamic covenant is also explicitly made to the descendants of Abraham: “to your offspring I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7).

These features and many more like them throughout Torah form a basis for communal expression of grief in Jewish life. A lost loved one already possesses a running start, a kind of memorialized velocity, which allows the memory of that person to rapidly begin the process of moving from ghost to ancestor. Because of a sense of historical rootedness, a sense that both the one lost and the bereaved belong to a shared identity that is grounded in sacred tradition, the memory of the one lost is not merely grieved by personal connections, but involves a web of interlinked relationships and extensions that reaches far beyond their immediate surrounding in the present. The lost person belongs not just to the bereaved, but also to the already departed, both recent and ancient. These ancestral forms of communal identity then also inform the present: As Jewish life and ritual is maintained, as life is lived as a Jew, the mere act of living renders honor to the memory of the deceased.

Pat Feeks was a man I knew only briefly during my time in the Army but he had a profound effect on my interpretation of my service. I met Pat during my second deployment to Afghanistan and was surprised to find that, as a SEAL, he possessed none of the typical swagger, arrogance, or sense of elitism that I had sometimes encountered with other nonconventional units. Despite being in every way my professional superior, Pat presented with virtually no arrogance or sense of entitlement. He, along with many of the other SEALs I befriended during that deployment, seemed to carry himself with a sense of humility, teachability, and friendliness that I considered notably virtuous. With me being an Army forward observer and Pat being the designated SEAL platoon JTAC (joint terminal attack controller—someone who directs fixed-wing close air support), we struck a natural kinship that initially revolved around learning different techniques and strategies from each other about how to best do our jobs. His professionalism, mixed with his candor and general approachability, made for an easy friendship. As our early morning twilight talks waiting for C-130 airdrops evolved, our conversations slowly grew from the professional to the personal and familial. Like so many of the fraternal bonds I forged during my time in the military, the circumstances forced by the environment and compounded by stress and shared risk gave way to vulnerability, which further gave way to a kind of friendship I’ve found utterly unparalleled in civilian life. As Jonathan Shay has said, “men become mothers to one another in combat.”

Yet after a few months, out unit redeployed to North Carolina, and later that summer, Pat was killed in action.

Despite knowing Pat only briefly, I still feel haunted by his passing. Perhaps it’s the intensity of being mutually known during war; that we possessed a kind of special access to each other that no one—perhaps not even our wives or children—will ever know. And with that intensity comes a kind of special burden to keep alive the knowledge of the most hidden, the most vulnerable parts of each other that after one’s service is rarely given additional opportunity to be disclosed. True knowledge of one another—our fears, our regrets, our desires, our hopes, our past, our dreams, our tastes—becomes sacred, and a failure to honor that sacred knowledge leads to feelings of intense guilt, shame or regret. In failing to act in accordance with the memory of those we served alongside, we abandon the imperative implied by hallowed memory. Thus the preface to the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

I don’t know if my grandfather ever began the process of transforming his friends—his underlined “ghosts”—into ancestors. It is possible that he never truly reckoned with the memory of the loss of so many of his friends; that he continued to be tormented by them and that each Memorial Day functioned for him like it sometimes does for me: a solemn procession where I scrutinize whether or not I am living in a way that honors the men I entrusted with my own life. A self-imposed inquisition where I wonder if I am up to snuff, if I am living in a way that holds Pat or Chuck or John or Jamey or David in the high esteem I believe their memories deserve. I wonder if the fact that I have lost many more of my comrades to suicide and substance abuse than I ever have to combat also reshapes this dynamic, if it adds to a sense of survivor’s guilt, or a sense of wishing I could have done more to help prevent it.

I like to think, however, that my grandfather needed no grand elaboration for his own process. If his life was any indication, his way of transforming his ghosts into ancestors was simply living the life he sensed he had been lucky to retain. One filled by embracing the normative and mundane, of going to work, working hard, putting in the time, raising the kids, paying the bills. Like the mere act of living rendering honor, living normally and ordinarily was the honor due. No one knew that the night superintendent at Holes-Webway Printing had fought for his life at Salerno or crossed the Waal under automatic weapons fire in a wooden canoe precisely because there was a kind of dignified anonymity in blending in, of laying both his and his comrades’ deeds to rest to embrace a way of life that many of them likely envisioned for themselves after “The War” had ended. Consulting the back of that regimental history book, seeing all those underlined 18- and 19-year-old kids, I imagine my grandfather asking not, “what could I have done differently,” but stating, “I remember you all, and I’m doing the best I can to live the life I was fortunate enough to have.”

Perhaps the true way of honoring our war dead this Memorial Day—of transforming our ghosts into ancestors—consists of simply living the life that many of them never received the chance to live.

Michael Gruber is a Chaplain Resident for the Department of Veterans Affairs in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Army combat veteran.

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