Right around Memorial Day, like so many others, my wife and I spent some time standing over a soldier's grave. William Hargis wasn't kin to us, so we hadn't thought to bring flowers. Julie and I stayed a while though, and in the springtime peace of a country graveyard, some old -- but never really answered -- questions came to mind.
For example: Why are we so prone to send kids off to fight where the climate can be deadly as any bullet?
Seems as if most wars provide a few soldier-killer diseases for pathologists to study. World War I had the Spanish influenza. Vietnam gave us cancers related to Agent Orange, and nobody's really figured out Gulf War syndrome from the early 1990s.
Anyway, it was sickness, not rifle fire, that laid William Hargis low. If he'd stayed in Kentucky, he might have lived five or six more decades and had a comfortable old age blessed by grandchildren. Instead, at 24, he went to his grave.
Another question I can't help asking in such a place is: What is it about senseless conflict that draws young men like William into a recruiter's office?
So many youngsters sacrifice youth and lives to satisfy a greedy president who never sees the faces or knows the names of those killed by his political machinations.
Maybe it's a desire to be part of history that fills recruiting offices, a chance to be a part of a great and noble crusade. Whenever young volunteers are needed, politicians promise them bright, unfading glory in return for their service, make solemn pledges that unselfish sacrifice will be remembered forever.
I never talked to William Hargis, but I suspect some similar argument persuaded him to put on a uniform and wage war against a country that couldn't mount a meaningful threat against America no matter how hard it tried.
It doesn't matter what the politicians and recruiters promise, we do forget. It has been a long time since anybody remembered what William Hargis did for his country. Wonder what he would think if he could see that his expensive tombstone has fallen over or knew that his grave is so ignored that my wife and I had to pull weeds away so we could read his name.
So much for remembering. So much for glory.
There isn't even a Veterans of Foreign Wars flag over his grave in Fleming County's Brick Union Cemetery.
At least the words engraved on his tombstone are still legible:
"In memory of William Hargis, Breathitt County Ky who volunteered during the War with Mexico in September, 1847. He was honorably discharged at Jalappa, in Mexico, in consequence of ill health, and died on his return home at Cincinnati February 16, 1848 and at his request was brought here and buried. Age 24 years."
William Hargis' war experience was no different, really, than that of the 800 or so young Americans whose lives have been squandered so far in Iraq. Almost no one reading these words will have a clue what the Mexican War was about. And 150 years from now, no one will remember the lies that persuaded kids to become a blood sacrifice to oil gluttony.
No one who knows anything about history would argue that Hargis died for a good cause. His war was a naked land-grab against a much weaker country, and it killed him as senselessly as President Bush's oil war murders boys and girls today.
Maybe some good can come out of Hargis' premature death. If you know young people who are thinking about raising their hands for a recruiting sergeant, tell them about Hargis. Tell them about his forgotten, broken tombstone in a cemetery hardly anyone visits. Tell them about his quest for glory, his sacrifice for a country that promised never to forget. Tell them about the years of life he never got to experience.
Perhaps the youngsters you know will think twice about going off to make the world safe for cheap gas.