What We Remember on Memorial Day From the Civil War to Vietnam and beyond, Americans have struggled to reconcile the duty to honor the war dead with the need to pass historical judgment
A few years ago I was honored to serve briefly on the American Battle Monuments Commission, whose chief duty is the custodianship of American military cemeteries abroad. Over 125,000 American dead now rest in these serene parks, some 26 in 16 countries. Another 94,000 of the missing are commemorated by name only. The graves (mostly fatalities of World Wars I and II) are as perfectly maintained all over the world, from Tunisia to the Philippines, as those of the war dead who rest in the well-manicured acres of the U.S. military cemetery in Arlington, Va.
A world away from the white marble statuary, crosses, Stars of David, noble inscriptions and manicured greenery of these cemeteries is the stark 246-foot wall of polished igneous rock of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the mall in Washington. On its black surfaces are etched 58,307 names of American dead in Vietnam. They are listed in the chronological order of their deaths. The melancholy wall, birthed in bitter controversy at its inception in 1982, emphasizes tragedy more than American confidence in its transcendent values—as if to warn the nation that the agenda of Vietnam was not quite that of 1917 and 1941.
The Vietnam War may have reopened with special starkness the question of how to honor our fallen dead, but it is hardly a new problem in our history. As today’s disputes over the legacy of the Civil War and the Confederacy suggest, it has never been enough just to lament the sacrifice and carnage of our wars, whether successful or failed. We feel the need to honor the war dead but also to make distinctions among them, elevating those who served noble causes while passing judgment on their foes. This is not an exclusively American impulse. It has deep roots in the larger Western tradition of commemoration, and no era—certainly not our own—has managed to escape its complexities and paradoxes.
Our own idea of Memorial Day originated as “Decoration Day,” the post-Civil War tradition, in both the North and the South, of decorating the graves of the war dead. That rite grew out of the shock and trauma of the Civil War. In the conflict’s first major battle at Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) there were likely more American casualties (about 24,000 dead, wounded and missing on both sides) than in all the nation’s prior wars combined since its founding.
The shared ordeal of the Civil War, with some 650,000 fatalities, would eventually demand a unified national day of remembrance. Memorial Day began as an effort to square the circle in honoring America’s dead—without privileging the victors or their cause. The approach of the summer holidays seemed the most appropriate moment to heal our civic wounds. The timing suggested renewal and continuity, whereas an autumn or winter date might add unduly to the grim lamentation of the day.
But could the distinctions so crucial to war itself really be suppressed? Consider the themes of the two greatest speeches in the history of Western oratory: Pericles’ long Funeral Oration for the Athenian dead of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, delivered in 431 B.C. and amounting to some 3,000 words in most translations; and nearly 2,300 years later, President Abraham Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address of 1863.
Both statesmen agree that the mere words of the present generation cannot do justice to the sacrifice of the fallen young. Lincoln sees the talking and the living as less authentic commemorators than the mute dead: “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.”
Pericles argues that even a notable such as himself has almost no right to assess the sacrifices of the dead: “I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperiled in the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill.”
By their ultimate sacrifice—what Lincoln calls “the last full measure of devotion”—the mute war dead argue that even heroic men are less important than the eternal values of freedom and democracy that “shall not perish from the earth.” Such chauvinism assumes that democracies are by nature superior to the alternatives. Thus to Pericles, Athens was the “school of Hellas” and for Lincoln America was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty.”
For both orators, the dead are the natural link between self-sacrificing forefathers and the present generation’s own progeny, who at some future date may be called upon to emulate those who have died to perpetuate the nation. In this view, we are not quite unique individuals but part of a larger generation whose values and accomplishments are to be judged collectively and in comparison to what came before and will follow.
‘Both Pericles and Lincoln see war and its evils as tragically innate to the human experience.’
Finally, both Pericles and Lincoln see war and its evils as tragically innate to the human experience. Conflict will demand sacrifices, in varying degrees, from each successive generation of free peoples. As the philosopher George Santayana more pessimistically put it, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Both orators suggest that democracies and republics will always be the natural targets of aggressors who see their freedom as weakness to be exploited rather than as magnanimity to be appreciated.
The Western tradition of commemoration also includes a unique idea of individual moral exemption. As first articulated by Pericles, we overlook any defects of character of the war dead, attributing to one brief moment of ultimate sacrifice the power to wash away all prior moral faults.
A noble death serves, in the words of Pericles, as “a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.” The great playwright Aeschylus wanted his epitaph to read only that he was a veteran of the Athenian victory at Marathon—a battle where his brother fell.
These themes still resonate in our own habits and rites. This Memorial Day the flags on graves in American cemeteries set the dead apart, in a special moral category that discourages any discussion of the bothersome details of their short lives.
‘We now tend to see the Confederate dead as faceless emblems of larger causes.’
Pericles and Lincoln assume that the sacrifice of the war dead is enhanced by the nobility of their cause and the victories they have won. In the age of the Parthenon and Sophocles, democratic Athenians considered themselves superior to oligarchic Spartans, seeing vindication in their early successes (Athens would go on to lose the war 26 years after the great speech of Pericles). Similarly, the Union believed itself the moral better of the slaveholding South and would march to triumph under that banner two years after Gettysburg.
For democratic peoples, it is difficult to separate victory and nobility from commemorations of the fallen. This is especially true when it comes to events that directly engage our own moral imperatives. In the case of the Civil War, we now tend to see the Confederate dead as faceless emblems of larger causes, not as unique individuals who wrestled with their own moral paradoxes. Yet we seem to think that future generations will not do the same to us, applying their own—possibly quite different—standards to the collective sacrifices of our generation.
Herodotus, the Greek historian of the Persian Wars, saw armed conflict as a tragedy for all warring parties precisely because it was central to the human experience and thus endless. In obscene fashion, war inverted the natural order of peacetime by compelling fathers to bury sons. Pericles bluntly reminded us that the tragedy is not when we the middle-aged and old die but when the youth do, “to whom a fall, if it came, would be most tremendous in its consequences.”
Railing at the loss of the nation’s youth has thus long accompanied the tradition of praising noble sacrifice for a just cause. The historian Thucydides nearly wept over the young Athenians senselessly killed—in the wrong place, at the wrong time, on the wrong mission—by the tribes of wild Aetolia: “These were by far the best men in the city of Athens that fell during this war.” When Lincoln said of the dead that they “shall not have died in vain,” he implied that the sacrifices of the aggregate Union war dead by November 1863 would be for naught if the North lost the war.
The Roman lyric poet Horace in his Odes famously praised the ultimate contributions of Roman legionaries, declaring, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”: “It is a sweet and fitting thing to die on behalf of the fatherland.” Wilfred Owen, the English poet and veteran of the trenches of World War I (killed one week before the armistice), would have none of it. In the conclusion of his nightmarish signature poem, he bitterly channeled Horace:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
After the Somme and Verdun, Owen no longer saw clear moral winners and losers, only endless carnage without hope of resolution: hence the “old Lie.” Similarly scornful was the poet and critic Randall Jarrell’s response to the contribution of Allied bombing to winning World War II. His poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” ends with the verse, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”
‘We don’t mourn all war dead equally or find tragedy in every loss.’
Still, for all the carnage and senselessness in just and unjust wars alike, we don’t mourn all war dead equally or find tragedy in every loss. Certainly the SS officers who were buried at Bitburg, Germany—where President Ronald Reagan in 1985 caused a storm by visiting on the 40th anniversary of V-E Day—were connected to the horrors of Auschwitz. And while there is something understandable in solemn visits of Japanese officials to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to honor the 2,466,532 names of the dead found in the Shinto shrine’s “Book of Souls,” many of those men left a trail of 20 million dead throughout Asia and the Pacific from 1931 to 1945.
I grew up in a Swedish-American family in which the name “Okinawa” went unmentioned, a campaign that was tactically unimaginative and strategically incoherent—and yet aimed at finally stopping a murderous imperial regime. My uncle and namesake, Victor Hanson, a corporal in the 6th Marine Division, was killed in the last hours of the last day of battle for Sugar Loaf Hill.
I inherited both Vic’s college athletic equipment and a Periclean admonition from my father (who himself flew on 39 missions over Japan in a B-29) to “live up to Vic”—without much elaboration other than the implicit advice that the only thing worse than fighting a dirty war on Okinawa would have been to lose it.
I visit Victor Hanson’s grave each Memorial Day in the nearby small California Central Valley farming town of Kingsburg, still in astonishment that such a mythical person, whom I never met, gave up his youth (and a long life ahead) for what we have now collectively become. Pericles hoped that such sacrifices would move the living of subsequent generations to a deeper appreciation of the greatness of Athens: “feed your eyes upon her from day to day, until love of her fills your hearts.”
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On Memorial Day we should remember that all commemoration is underpinned by ambiguities about the causes, conduct and aims of particular wars. No one has captured the heartbreak of the war dead more effectively than the Marine memorialist E.B. Sledge, who wrote “With the Old Breed,” a horrific account of his nightmare on Peleliu and Okinawa.
Sledge is sometimes simplistically described as an antiwar voice (“So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past.”), but he did not end his gruesome story of combat with a universal denunciation of war. He finished instead with a solemn reminder—somewhere between Horace and Wilfred Owen—that circumstances count.
His words are worth recalling as we cast our eyes over the endless fields of tiny flags we will again see this Memorial Day on the graves of Americans who gave their all for us:
Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country—as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” With privilege goes responsibility.
Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow and classicist at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” which will be published in October by Basic Books.
Appeared in the May 27, 2017, print edition as ‘The Fate of the Fallen.’