James Carroll's Boston Globe Memorial Day tribute, "Honor the fallen, not the war", honors neither the fallen nor the war.
Because it is natural to regard those who died in war as heroes, it can seem necessary to affirm the wars themselves as heroic, too. The decoration extends to martial rhetoric. This is a human response, dating at least to Homer, but such remembering results, ironically, in a kind of amnesia. The true condition of war -- what continually leaves battle-scarred survivors opposed to war -- is readily forgotten.
No, the true condition of war is not readily forgotten because of martial rhetoric, it is forgotten because of apathy. Memorial Day is about remembering. It is the one day out of 365 when the nation can take pause to recall the "true condition of war". If we did not stop for even a day to remember, and to celebrate heroic sacrifice, then we would surely forget.
Pundits spend the year debating war, the rationale for going to war, the conduct of prosecuting the war. In the heat of our own political battles, some wield those selfless sacrifices made on gruesomely real battlefields only to shut down dissent while others sacrifice the honor of our soldiers on misplaced altars of moral indignation. Taking a day off from divisive debates to truly honor and respect the soldier's sacrifice, and the value of it, makes us remember those real conditions of war. It forces us to consider the valor of the brave soldier who stands firm before the horrors of war and exclaims, "You Shall Not Pass".
For many Americans, the primary exposure to such bravery is in films, fictional or otherwise. In George C. Scott's portrayal of Patton, we see General McAuliffe's response to the German demand that he surrender at Bastogne - "Nuts" and General Patton's subsequent reaction, "A man that eloquent has to be saved!". Ted Turner's Gettysburg portrays, among many other singular acts of valor, Colonel Chamberlain's "reckless" bayonet charge at Gettysburg, knowing he must not fail and cannot yield regardless of the cost in blood and lives. Even such fictional confrontations of good and evil such as in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Gandolf's resolute stand before the Balrog that drags him down into the bowels of the earth can evoke powerful emotions in all of us.
Bravery, Valor, Honor, Integrity. Sacrifice. These are not mere words of martial rhetoric -- they are words that are quite real to the servicemen and servicewomen on the ground and in the line of fire.
The notion that the only enduring remnant of war is that it "leaves battle-scarred survivors opposed to war" is not only ridiculous, but patently untrue. Consider the image of a 4th of July parade where the only person standing as the Colors pass is an old veteran as he rises from his wheelchair. Soldiers are not mere cannon fodder sent home as so much damaged goods. Our soldiers are not brainwashed automatons dancing like marionettes who only come to their senses like Stephen Crane's anti-hero in Red Badge of Courage, after being wounded in battle and seeing the horrors of war. They are reasoning rational men and women capable of enduring sacrifice for noble purposes. Carroll's line of argument, like Crane's point, is that in war there is no honor, and there is no purpose. They are both mistaken.
In the 20th century, two occurrences initiated a broad change in consciousness. Industrialized war so devastated the populations of the battle zones that they found it impossible to resume the ancient habit of glorification. The past would be remembered differently.
Germany and Japan, in particular, emerged as pacifist nations -- an extraordinary turn. But, secondly, when nuclear weapons entered the story, the future was transformed, too. Traditional notions of proportionality and civilian immunity were obliterated. For the first time, large numbers of humans began to insist that a world without war was not only possible but mandatory. The most respectful way to memorialize the war dead was to deny that they had to be succeeded.
Shall we honor fallen police officers and firefighters and first responders with the same twisted rationale? Saying that their efforts to hold back the night were in vain? And is the duty of a soldier any different than that of the thin blue line demarcating order and chaos? The only difference between a police officer maintaining order and a soldier clearing the ground for order, is the ground upon which each battles.
War is hell. Some wars have been fought for depraved reasons. But not all wars. Geneva Conventions notwithstanding, there are ultimately no rules. There is ultimately the will to prevail. If we could abolish war, without sacrificing our own values of freedom and dignity, then we should do it. Alas, of course, we cannot. Condemning all wars as merely a game of generals and politicians who send pawn-like soldiers off to their deaths is at best, naive. It is, at worst, suicidal.
Carroll presses on:
This Memorial Day, especially, we yearn to honor the more than 2,700 US soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is the proper way to remember them? Even in condemning what made it necessary, can we not acknowledge the selflessness of their sacrifice? At Troy, soldiers were roused to battle by the promise that their exploits would be sung of far into the future. Is it a betrayal of our soldiers that we no longer want to sing? Does it mean they died "in vain" if we insist that no one else should die?
Yes, because it implies that their sacrifice was unnecessary and unworthy.
Evil exists, evil that would destroy Carroll's world and our own. Someone has to man the ramparts, someone has to go out through the gates and confront and embrace the enemy on those "great battlefields". Someone will inevitably die.
Carroll's exercise in rhetoric, especially on this one day of Remembrance, is a desecration of that memory. If he can say nothing with honor, then say nothing. If only for a day.
How then should we honor the fallen?
As Abe Lincoln honored those who fell at Gettysburg,
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain
Give a soldier his due.