Memorial Day -- the good and the bad

Delivered at the AUUF  May 30, 2004


In his description of “The Four Loves” CS Lewis discusses affection (storgi) which is the feelings we have for those familiar to us, a parent for a child, a pet owner for a pet and even a pet for another pet. While that describes how we begin to related to one another in a fellowship like this, that isn’t the whole story. He discusses eros – a word for love we still use often. I am sure even though some of us may have occasional experience of eros with other members of the fellowship, I am pretty sure that is not what most of us come here on Sunday mornings to experience. We certainly had a wonderful presentation on something of the sort by Mim, but I feel confident you would agree with me on this. Agape is the Creator’s love and while some of is might seek agape that is not the sort of thing we would all agree on. I am not sure I really understand what it is. Love in love with love. But Lewis’ description of friendship (philia) strikes me as just the sort of association we reach for here together and he describes that as basically talking together about things we enjoy thinking about with one another. I love his description of everyone with their slippers on at the end of the day, feet stretched out towards the fire, drinks at our elbows, and then the whole world opens up before us. So I very much appreciate the opportunity offered me today, to think out loud with you about a subject that really circumscribes many of the things we consider most important.  


How should I commemorate Memorial Day? Memorial Day, according to the Encarta Encyclopedia, “is a legal holiday, observed annually on the last Monday in May in most of the United States, in honor of the nation's armed services personnel killed in wartime. The holiday, originally called Decoration Day, is traditionally marked by parades, memorial speeches and ceremonies, and the decoration of graves with flowers and flags, hence the original name.” It seems to me that there are three ways to think about this each of which I think includes the previous one. In my mind they reflect an increasingly mature or sophisticated way of thinking. I will refer to the first as patriotism, the second as pluralism and the third as the way a member of our fellowship might think about it. I do not mean to imply that someone who thinks as a pluralist would not be a patriot. A true pluralist would certainly include being a patriot, though there would be differences between someone who was simply a patriot and someone who was also a pluralist. The same relationship applies to what I consider the level of thinking that occurs here in our fellowship.


What sorts of things do people who are patriots believe about Memorial Day? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said in “An address delivered for Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, at Keene, NH, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic,”to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go some whither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.” I recall commemorating the day when I was a kid and know that it meant a day of a parade, I think I was even in a few of those as a cub scout or marching with my little league baseball team. I remember it as a day when people would give me a flag that I could carry and bring home and we would have about six or so stuck in the dirt in our yard around the rock garden. But I was certainly young enough that the significance of the day did not mean to me what it does now. It reminds me of the story of the boy standing in front of the memorial plaque in the entrance to his church and looking at all the names. The priest came and stood next to him and explained. “These are the names of all of our church members who died in the service.” The boy nodded his head solemnly and asked, “Was it the 9:00 or the 10:45?” I was simply to young to really understand what death was and what sort of sacrifice was involved. I am sure I also did not understand why such a sacrifice should be made.

Is this the sort of thing I believe we are doing when we commemorate Memorial Day as patriots? I am older now and retired from the army 10 years ago. But my time in the service was incredibly safe very much as my father’s experience. As a kid growing up it seemed everyone’s grandfather had survived being gassed in WWI. Our fathers had been involved in WWII. My father wanted to join the navy while still in high school and his father walked him down to the recruiter’s to sign him up. He finished boot training just in time to go on a training cruise to Bermuda before the war ended. He was therefore discharged early and was entitled to the GI Bill and a fast track to finish high school. He entered college as those who stayed in school left for Korea. My time in the service was wonderful. The only soldier that ever died while assigned to me had become exhausted while on deployment and had become too ill to continue, so I sent him in on sick call and he never came back. It turned out that he had leukemia and died two weeks later. Perhaps I was in danger one evening in the dark when I stood on the beach of the Havel See in Berlin and saw a spotting scope light and realized you could only see that if you were the target. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. But I was confident since if I had been shot it would have caused a serious international incident – I hope! And I imagined that the effect seeing the scope on me had was just the effect desired by those with the scope. Another time I remember taking my family to shop for a Christmas tree and we ended up parked along a protest route. As the marchers came by I stood in front of my license plate hoping they might not notice I was an American and I greeted them as they walked by and they just nodded to me as well.

The one time I felt certain that I was going to die, at least for a moment I was certain, was when I was driving in Hawaii on the H1 heading for my retirement briefing. About 100 yards in front of me a woman driving a black Volvo sedan spun out of control and ended up broadside in front of me. There were three lanes and we were following the speed limit, about 10 miles faster than the speed posted on the signs, so we were going about 65. There was a car on each side of me and concrete on each side of them. So I knew. I was going to crash into her and that would be it. There was not even time to slow down. I thought, better hit something going in the same direction instead of something sitting still. So I made a decision to ram into the driver on my left. Just before hitting the woman in the Volvo I swerved sharply to strike the car on my left. At that exact moment, the man on my left swerved left – I have no idea how he had the room with the concrete wall next to him. I passed the read of the Volvo with about ½ inch on my right and had about the same space on my left between me and the other car as the two of us made a perfect S around the Volvo. We found ourselves on the other side of the Volvo back in our lanes without a scratch and I looked the other man right in the face and both of us had an absolutely incredulous smile on our faces. I then shook like crazy as I experienced what a true adrenalin rush can do to you. I certainly did not experience, or come close to experiencing things of this sort:

            When A Company of the 116th Regiment landed on D-Day at Omaha beach, “(it) had hardly fired a weapon. Almost certainly it had not killed any Germans. It had expected to move up the Vierville draw and be on top of the bluff by 0730, but at 0730 its handful of survivors were huddled up against the seawall, virtually without weapons. It had lost 96 percent of its effective strength.

But its sacrifice was not in vain. The men had brought in rifles, BARs, grenades, TNT charges, machine guns, mortars and mortar rounds, flamethrowers, rations, and other equipment. This was now strewn across the sand at Dog Green. The weapons and equipment would make a life-or-death difference to the following waves of infantry, coming in at higher tide and having to abandon everything to make their way to shore.” (Stephen Ambrose p. 331 in “D-Day”). At the WWII Memorial Senator Stevens said, “We had a commitment, and we kept it. That’s the way we looked at it.” “This memorial is here for those people who kept their commitment and gave their lives in doing it.”

We are at war today. We see this level of commitment in our fellow citizens. Cpl. Jason Dunahm of the US Marines died after putting his helmet over a grenade to save the lives of his squad members. In the President’s speech of March 19, 2004 on Iraq he said, “There is no dividing line -- there is a dividing line in our world, not between nations, and not between religions or cultures, but a dividing line separating two visions of justice and the value of life. On a tape claiming responsibility for the atrocities in Madrid, a man is heard to say, "We choose death, while you choose life." We don't know if this is the voice of the actual killers, but we do know it expresses the creed of the enemy. It is a mind set that rejoices in suicide, incites murder, and celebrates every death we mourn. And we who stand on the other side of the line must be equally clear and certain of our convictions. We do love live, the life given to us and to all. We believe in the values that uphold the dignity of life, tolerance, and freedom, and the right of conscience. And we know that this way of life is worth defending. There is no neutral ground -- no neutral ground -- in the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death.”

What the President says, especially, encapsulates the essential ingredients of this point of view. You might even say that as President it is his job to represent it and be the main actor in leading our commemoration and reinforcing belief in these things. But there are others that are certainly patriots but view war and the sacrifice made by so many people as a great evil.


Paul Fussell says that his experience in the war “brought me to the clear-eyed view of military historian Russell Weigley: "The American army of World War II habitually filled the ranks of its combat infantry with its least promising recruits, the uneducated, the unskilled, the unenthusiastic." Those remaining after the Air Corps, the navy, the coast guard, and the marines had exercised their choices "were then expected to bear the main burden of sustained battle." A hell for the men, and a hell for their leaders. I have speculated since why no one at the time seemed to care terribly. Perhaps the reason is that the bulk of those killed by bullets and shells were the ones normally killed in peacetime in mine disasters, industrial and construction accidents, lumbering, and fire and police work. No one we knew, certainly. Wasn't the ground war, for the United States, an unintended form of eugenics, clearing the population of the dumbest, the least skilled, the least promising of all young American males? Killed in their tens of thousands, their disappearance from the pool of future fathers had the effect, welcome or not, of improving the breed. Their fate constituted an unintended but inescapable holocaust.” (Paul Fussell pp 171-172 “Doing Battle”) Paul Fussell was wounded by an artillery shell that killed his platoon sergeant who had followed his lead in remaining out in the open. After returning to duty from the hospital he found his men no longer trusted him but did not find out why until 50 years later when he found that the award write up for his platoon sergeant was purely fictitious in order to make him receive a higher award and described him as doing many things he did not do. PF says, “The effect of this general order, once it came to light, was to augment my already intense skepticism about official utterances of any sort, military, political, ecclesiastical, or academic. It further persuaded me that medal citations, despite the quoting of them in the official multivolume history, The United States Army in World War IL are the worst possible documents for historians to invoke for any purpose, except possibly satire, a purpose Joseph Heller honors in Catch-22 and Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow. Likewise, in "Lederer's Legacy," a short story by Thomas Aitken about a head- quarters clerk in Vietnam whose job it is to "write up" medal citations, we are offered credible news about the conventions of dishonor governing such compositions, with their obligatory cliches, like "lack of regard for his personal safety" and "disregarding the danger involved." 'War," says British author Nigel Nicolson, "is the activity of man about which more lies are told than about any other." This is why, like sex, it's not easy to learn much about it except by experience.” (PF ibid p. 160)


For pluralists the stories are more complex. To some extent Memorial Day is misleading. It is not a day of celebration of our fallen heroes but instead a day of mourning. The reason we have war in the first place is because we have failed to convince enough of our fellow human beings that the only reason we have war is because we have failed to convince enough of us that it would be better to have peace. The frustration is the inadequacy of human intelligence to cope with the sad character of so much of human society. Why choose to kill one another rather than dialogue over our differences? We could settle those differences in better ways. Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel




We find ourselves as exemplars of our civilization. As such, we are poised to decide almost heroically what direction our civilization is to take. The principle on which this decision is to be based is the question of whose basic philosophy of man we are to believe: Hobbes or Locke. Is the human being a selfish nasty animal or a loving member of a community? Memorial day, the day we pause our civilization to think about this, is a day we remember those of our community who have given the ultimate sacrifice for the cause.


p. 134 in Paul Fussel’s “Doing Battle” searched “above me”


Is this why the narrative of the dying God is arguably the most beautiful narrative? The Greatest Story ever told? The Lesser Evil



Today this fact – that the better one understands society, the more difficult it is to make oneself useful within it –has probably become a regular part of the consciousness of the intellectually progressive sector of students, and at any rate, I expect, of those in this hall today. A contradiction of this kind – that the more I understand of society, the less I am able to participate in it, if I may put it so bluntly – cannot be attributed simply to the subject of knowledge, as it might appear to naïve awareness ” p. 3



Quote part of this and say:


T Adorno said…. Then when you study sociology – which I consider the method of doing philosophy today – the arguments are convincing that people – homo narrans – or man the story maker, makes up stories within which life is interpreted. These stories tell us who we are, what are place is in the universe and how we should best maintain that place. It is in light of these stories that I approach the great celebration of Memorial Day recognizing that for some the stories tell us that this is the day we celebrate our heroes – those that have died for God and Country. It is for this purpose that the day has been made significant.


I find it hard to celebrate or mourn with either side since in my heart I mourn for both. Each story is believable enough for me that I find myself being absolutely thankful that I live, I love, and my society has been possible thanks to the sacrifices of all those who made it possible.


I find it hard to understand how I could be so joyful when all of that means that my ancestors, my heroes, made this wonderful life possible for me and my loved ones by being the most deadly predators on the planet – and by killing those who would have been ancestors of others and destroying the hopes and aspiriations of those others when they were not very much different than me. Was it the luck of what foods were available for my ancestors? The germs? The steel?


So how do I spend Memorial Day if it is a time for us to contemplate, and commemorate those who have served us, especially those who have died while serving us?

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