We have a Vietnam War Memorial in New York -- lots of people don't know it's there. It's over on the East side, all the way downtown: several clear freestanding walls of glass, in which letters home from people who died there are encased. The letters come into view when you stand directly before them and seem to fade away when you move on. I guess that about sums it up.
We have a World War II memorial, too, that lots of people don't know about. It's in Battery Park, a semicircle of huge vertical granite tablets with the names of all 4601 who died in the Atlantic. The Korean War Memorial in Battery Park is a black marble obelisk with the steel silhouette of a soldier, informally called "The Universal Soldier." There's a Merchant Marine Memorial down there, too: seafarers in a lifeboat, one man cupping his hands around his mouth to call for help, another two men pulling a third up from the water. He's not helping -- his body looks limp. We don't know if he made it or not.
The lovely arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn is a Civil War memorial. The bronze Bronx River Soldier stands in Van Cortland Park, where his flesh-and-blood counterparts trained before heading south.
There are dozens of World War I memorials, all over the city -- the clock tower on the old fire house down on Pier A at the lower tip of Manhattan is one. A lot of them were put up by individuals. Mothers, a lot of them.
That enormous stature at the Southwest corner of Central Park, on a pedestal so high you identify any of its elements, is a memorial to the men who perished on the "Maine," igniting the Spanish American War.
"Remember the Maine!" Enough time has passed to note that this rallying cry was a creation of yellow journalism. It wasn't at all clear that the Spanish had been responsible for the sinking of the "Maine." You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war, William Randolph Hearst growled to Frederick Remington, whom he had sent down to Cuba to depict the atrocities he was sure were regularly committed by the Spanish overlords of the island nation.
Wars may happen far away, but our understanding of them is created at home. Civilians can only know and remember what we are told to know and remember. It may or may not be true. That is why it is important to hear from the people who were there, actually on the ground, because we can be manipulated if we do not hear from uncoached witnesses.
A certain weariness comes into the eyes of someone who has been at war, a slight reluctance to begin speaking -- he knows in advance that his experience will not be understood, not fully, by anyone who was not there, and wonders if it might not be better just not to say anything at all. A lot of them don't. But they gravitate toward each other, enjoy one another's company, even if all they're doing is playing cards. There are some things they don't have to explain, not to each other. Things they already know. Things only they know. Things nobody should have to know.
People who do not know these things firsthand retain an innocence lost forever to those who know. They can never get it back. They do not begin these wars, but they pay for them. Maybe right on the spot. Maybe for years afterward. Sometime, though.
Perhaps a prayer on Veterans' Day need not be a referendum on this or that war. Perhaps today is not the day for that. Perhaps it can be, instead, a prayer for all those who have sacrificed their innocence so the rest of us could keep ours.