Memorial Day Reflections, 2016 Edition
Recently, I was in Indianapolis and had time to walk around downtown. My attention was immediately drawn to the magnificent veterans’ memorial that dominates the skyline and to what it celebrates – and who celebrated them.
These words are written in May 29th; this date is the 563rd anniversary of ‘Black Tuesday,’ when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, ending 1,962 years of continuous existence for the political entity known as Rome. (While we, following the prejudices of the ‘Enlightenment,’ call them ‘Byzantines,’ they – and their neighbors, friend and foe alike – called them ‘Romans.’) This comes to mind because the victors of that struggle did not honor the graves of Roman veterans who fell in battle, either against them or in other struggles.
Fast forward to the turn of the century. James Webb’s novel Lost Soldiers recounts the search for the remains of American Vietnam war dead and how that effort evolved into a decades-old murder mystery. What moved me the most, however, in reading it was the recounting of how the cemeteries of Republic of Vietnam war dead were either unmarked or had been effaced by the victorious regime.
A similar process began occurring in 2015 with regard to Confederate war memorials in the United States. No one, in polite society, advocates for the Confederacy as a political entity, and only someone well beyond the pale would have anything good to say about the memory of Nathaniel Bedford Forest; yet, it is unarguable that the vast majority of the men who lie beneath Confederate grave markers fought with courage and honor for whatever reasons they served – family, community, a cause that did not deserve their support but received it anyway, or even because they were conscripted.
What all three of these scenarios have in common is that the war dead in question fought for the losing side. That is not the case with the veterans of America’s wars today, in the sense that we have not lost physical or political control of our homeland to an invader. Yet, one can sense, as was apparent from how some of our returning veterans were treated during and after the Vietnam War, that being associated with an unpopular war, or one that the public views as a ‘loss,’ means that those who bore the brunt of battle may, and do, find some of that unpopularity attaching to themselves.
The builders of the monument in Indianapolis were doubtless patriotic Americans who believed in their country and the causes – the Union side in the Civil War prominent among them – that Indiana’s sons (and daughters) fought for. Perhaps they had an overly idealistic notion of their nation and its history. Perhaps the reverse is true today. For how long will we continue to see a nation honor its war dead when the Nation itself is relentlessly attacked for every real or imagined sin in its history? Can we really expect future generations to place bouquets at the markers of those whom they’ve been told fought on the wrong side of history? Veterans of the army of Constantine XI who fell with him on May 29, 1453 might tell us otherwise, if we could hear their voices from beyond the grave. The chorus would be swelled by others, too, warning us against the fate of those who do not control the narrative of their lives and the things that they died defending.
One final word. One way of protecting the memory of our war dead is by making sure that we only commit ourselves to war when absolutely necessary, when the cause is just, the issues clear and the alternatives unacceptable, after a national debate has taken place. (Obviously, there are exceptions, such as a response to a surprise attack, but the exceptions do not invalidate the rule.) In an era of ‘presidential wars’ it would be good to get back to insisting that Congress, the branch of our Federal government which alone has the power to declare war, reclaim its duty to do so, as it did after Vietnam with the War Powers Act.
This would be a good first step toward ensuring that veterans, living and dead, of future wars receive the honor that they are due. Until then, we should remember to separate our feelings about any particular war’s justness from those respecting the ones who serve in them, just as we should remember that focusing solely on our country’s past failings or giving heed to the voices of those who can only tear down and never build up dishonors the service of the warriors who answered the call without regard to personal safety, security – or the politics of those who made the fateful decision to invest their ‘lives, fortunes and sacred honor’ on the field of battle.