Memorial Day

Why Remember?


Every time we call up a memory, we reinvent the past. That’s one reason eyewitness accounts are so unreliable. Nobody sees the same event in the same way, and every reconstructed memory of an event adds to, or detracts from, the way things really happened. So, every time we remember something, we recreate the event. The way we remember it happening is probably not the way it actually happened.

Memory is a faulty reconstruction of our mental experiences, susceptible to being influenced by our prior knowledge, beliefs, goals, mental state, emotions, and social context. Thus, what is retrieved from memory can be substantially different from what was initially encoded, and what was encoded can also differ from what really happened. –  | May 31, 2014 False Memories – A Faulty Reconstruction

So what good are memories if they are just a jumble of subjective data points, each one influenced by an array of environmental, psychological, neurological, and emotional factors? How can we, with confidence, agree on any of the features of our memories – even memories we share with others who were there?

Facts to the rescue – simple, undeniable facts that reinforce our memories, and buttress our recollections. When we recall an event, a place, a name, we often get a number of the details wrong, but I have documented proof that I lived at 1208 Avenue U. in Lubbock Texas in 1973 – even though the city fathers paved paradise and put up a parking lot many years ago.

Facts. Numbers. Unalterable.

Sometimes, though, facts get in the way of truth. US Navy Seal, Chris Kyle, apparently had been informed prior to the publication of his best-selling book, American Sniper, that he had gotten the facts wrong regarding the number of awards he had received while on active duty as “the most lethal sniper” in the history of the U.S. military. In the book Kyle takes credit for two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars with Valor; however, unnamed Navy officers claim that he received only – only – one Silver Star and three Bronze. That discrepancy shouldn’t obscure the greater truth that he served our country with distinction, placing himself in harm’s way to an extent that few soldiers had to face.

It’s true that Kyle didn’t die while serving (he was murdered as a civilian while helping a former Marine with PTSD), and so technically, he should be officially remembered on Veterans Day (when we remember the service of all U.S. military veterans) and not Memorial Day (when we remember our vets who died while serving). That’s a fact. But it’s also like a gnat on Audie Murphy’s helmet. Inconsequential, except to those who count gnats.

Despite those facts, and despite the unreliable nature of memory, we remain grateful for the undeniable sacrifice of Chris Kyle and so many who gave their lives in service to our country. Their deaths (over one million casualties  since the Revolutionary War) inspire us to keep their memory alive – imperfect as those memories may be – and to celebrate their sacrifice every Memorial Day.

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