<< The Body Politic

On Memorial Day

Friday, June 12th, 2015

May 25, 2015 | Weekly Standard

taps blogWhen thought-smiths have forged on the comfortable anvil of peace the belief that all war and conflict is wicked, foolish, and on the brink of extinction, then pain becomes the meaning of evil and rejecting evil becomes the revolt against pain in all its forms. Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. believed as much, and marking the occasion of Memorial—or Decoration—day in 1895, said so to Harvard University’s graduating class. Warmed to his theme, the future Supreme Court Justice then noted to the youthful audience that once pain becomes what evil means, then suffering becomes a wrong that can and should be prevented, and sympathy easily turns to pity, fear, and loathing.

Pity and fear seem not out of place on the day the nation has set aside to remember its buried military sons and daughters. Pity, for the sufferings endured and the dreams and talents curtailed; fear, of something precious being squandered, or of felt violence anticipated and unassailable, seem to be even healthy responses to death. But in the new circumstance of a pity nurtured on the criminality of suffering, the honoring of the dead that was the original intent of recalling their memory is hijacked. And honorable individuals who died performing perhaps the greatest of deeds endure a second death—their memory and actions, in so far as they share a military association, maligned by ignorant assumptions or at the least, by thoughtlessness or indifference.

How then, asks Justice Holmes in a question that reverberates especially today, ought we to remember our war dead and mourn their loss, so as best to honor them?

Every political community inevitably faces this question. But the quick answer of simply mourning the dead is insufficient. Those lives were in service to a polity, a nation, or a state, and together represented its enforcing power.  In addition to the war, violence, and suffering that cannot be diluted from the action of their lives or their deaths are the foundational principles each country embodies. Those dead soldiers’ lives were in service to their country, and so considerations of the dead involve an estimation of the country’s moral worth. What did they fight for? For what did they die? The reverse side of that token also plays a part in this: How a government thinks of and treats its military dead reveal its operational belief about the proper relationship(s) between ruler and ruled.

In Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, the common dead are nameless wailing wraiths confined to Erebus. Only the demi-god hero is notable, and even then, his memory relies on a poet’s willing voice. The destruction caused by Achilles’ wrath in the Iliad is notable not for its effects on the sorry individual soldier, but for its implications for royal dynasties, international, and inter-deity (inter-galactic even) relations. Pericles, in Thucydides’ famous rendering, highlights the value to the Athenian solider of dying in the defense of Athens, because he will then have “the whole earth for [his] tomb.” He will remain nameless, but being subsumed within the great name of Athens, famous for “forcing every sea and land to be the highway of its daring,” he will be a part of the “imperishable monuments” Athens left behind everywhere, “whether for evil or good.”

Cemeteries for centuries now have housed headstones with individual names. A striking feature of American national cemeteries such as that at Arlington is the quiet of its architecture in the face of the rows on rows of uniform white markers, each baring a person’s name. There’s something to be said for a country that recognizes the equal worthiness of each of its dead soldiers to be remembered by name.

Each engraved name belies our present pity. It asks rather for respect—of the person, the choice to serve the country and face death if necessary, and even of the nation that nourished the minds and bodies whose blood loyalty it later earned.  Respect engenders action, or so Justice Holmes, and more famously President Lincoln, argued. Honoring our military dead results from the living dedicating themselves “to the great task remaining before us,” to pursue with “increased devotion” the enduring reality of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Governor Joshua Chamberlain of Maine, the famous “Lion of the Round Top,” faithfully expounded on Lincoln’s injunction in his many speeches for Memorial Day celebrations. Noting that the material honors of the living hardly benefit the dead, Chamberlain emphasized to his audience at the dedication of the Gettysburg monument to the 20th Maine that the things dead soldiers believed to be worth dying for remain equally worth living for.  It’s in living out the American form of self-government founded on the truths of liberty and equality, and bound by the rule of law, that surviving Americans best honor their military dead.  The greatest safeguard the soldiers earned for the living, argued Chamberlain, was the latter’s “personal participation in the direction and destiny of the Nation.”

A great and free country is not merely defense and protection. For every earnest spirit, it is opportunity and inspiration. In its rich content and manifold resources, its bracing atmosphere of broad fellowships and friendly rivalry, impulse is given to every latent aptitude and special faculty. Meantime enlarged humanity reflects itself in every participant. The best of each being given to all, the best of all returns to each. So the greatness as well as the power of a country broadens every life and blesses every home.

How do we honor those men and women who have given the “last, full measure of devotion”? “You must begin by wanting to,” is Justice Holmes’ conclusion. It is not by recoiling in pity and fear at the existence of war, pain, and suffering, or at nations willing and able to engage in war when necessary, that we best recall the memory and sacrifices of the military dead. Rather, it is by engaging thoughtfully in our national life that we honor their memory.