Calls for “boots on the ground” also evoke images of what is commonly called the “battlefield cross.” It is part of the unofficial military ceremony that men and women often hold, either in the field or back at their home base, to memorialize a deceased comrade.
This “cross” is not a cross but a field weapon, a rifle, with fixed bayonet thrust into the ground. A helmet sits on the top of the butt of the rifle. This inverted-rifle icon is at the center of a ceremony that enables comrades to pause, to bend a knee, to remember, to grieve, to say farewell. There is often a final roll call, understanding that one—or more—of the names shouted out will elicit no response.
At least as far back as the Vietnam War, this memorial has been further enriched and humanized by a pair of field boots sitting next to the weapon, helmet, and bayonet. Many have seen this image or even just the empty combat boots placed in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and other sites to remember friends who served and died.
These boots are a forceful and personal reminder. The U.S. Army Manual describing the field ceremony notes that the boots symbolize the “final march of the last battle.” Combat boots in the ceremony democratize a very old tradition in military funerals of leaders—the riderless horse with empty boots reversed in the stirrups, following the caisson with the body of the deceased. This rattling saber is silently sheathed.
Memorial Day is a single day, set aside for Americans to reflect upon and honor those whom they should reflect upon and honor every day. It provides a symbolic occasion to pause and consider those who serve in the military, and especially those whose sacrifice is forever—indelibly symbolized by the quiet markers in national cemeteries. But Americans need to make this act of reflection an enduring commitment rather than a perfunctory salute. If they have an obligation to remember these sacrifices when the shooting stops, they have a contract with those who serve to anticipate them before the shooting starts.
There unfortunately will be occasions when the United States needs to ask members of its military to take on an assignment on hostile ground. That can be a necessary action. And it can be an expected deployment for those who have volunteered to serve. They will go. But before such an order is issued, those who urge and authorize such an assignment should assess and explain it carefully, to make clear what the military’s goal is and what the metric is for knowing this deployed force has achieved it.
Explaining these things has become far more complicated. Since World War II, American wars have been fought for often general, typically ambiguous, and always evolving political ends. Combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been called “asymmetrical warfare,” engagements in which there is seldom an enemy in uniform in the field. In these conflicts, American military forces need to follow stringent rules of engagement, to recognize protected areas, to respect and protect noncombatants, and to seek to win often-fickle and always-frightened hearts and minds among the civilian residents. They need to work as civic, economic, and cultural advisors, as well as a police force aiming to control carefully and seldom overtly. None of these are conventional military actions—and public debate has not kept pace.