Monday, May 29, 2006

Christopher Hitchens on Memorial Day 2006

In the Wall Street Journal, public link, here:

Memorial Day
Reflections on those who made the ultimate sacrifice.


Monday, May 29, 2006 12:01 a.m.
The Wall Street Journal, opinion-editorial page

LONDON--In the Cotswold hills, in deep England, there is a pair of villages named Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter. In addition to its rather gruesome name, Lower Slaughter possesses a unique distinction. It is the only village in all of England that does not possess a First World War memorial. In the remainder of the country, even the smallest hamlet will have--I almost said "will boast"--a stone marker with an arresting number of names on it. In bigger towns, it wouldn't be possible to incise all the names in stone, though at the Menin Gate in the Belgian town of Ypres a whole arch is inscribed with the names of those who fell along the Somme. Every year on Nov. 11--anniversary of the 1918 "Armistice"--the rest of the English-speaking world gathers, with Flanders poppies worn in the lapel, to commemorate the dead of all wars but in particular to feel again the still-aching wounds of the "war to end all wars": the barbaric conflict that shook peoples' faith in civilization itself.

Though the carnage of that war was felt much less in the United States, it was only after the doughboys returned in 1918 that the former Confederate states dropped their boycott of America's original "Memorial Day," proclaimed by Union commander Gen. John Logan in May 1868. And here one can note the bizarre manner in which war--which is division by definition--exerts its paradoxically unifying effect. If it is "the health of the state," as was sardonically said by that great foe of "Mr. Wilson's war," Randolph Bourne, then it can also be an agent of emancipation and nation-building and even (as was proved after 1945) of democracy. But even this reflection can never abolish the insoluble problem: how to estimate the value of those whose lives were cruelly cut off before victory was in sight. It is sometimes rather lazily said that these soldiers "gave" their lives. It would be equally apt, if more blunt, to say that they had their lives taken. Humanity has been grappling with this conundrum ever since Pericles gave his funeral oration, and there would have been many Spartan and Melian widows and orphans who would have been heartily sickened by those Athenian-centered remarks.

The soil of the United States is almost spoiled for choice when it comes to commemorative sites. They range from Gettysburg itself--still one of the most staggering places of memory in the world--to the Confederate statue of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, and extend from the Polar Bear monument in Detroit (honoring those Michiganders who helped invade Russia in 1919: a forgotten war if ever there was one) to Maya Lin's masterpiece of Vietnam understatement on the National Mall. But Memorial Day transcends the specific, and collectivizes all disparate recollections into one single reflection upon the losses inflicted by war itself. The summa of this style, and one that transcends Pericles, is of course the Gettysburg Address, in which one cannot distinguish which side's graves are actually being honored. It was always Mr. Lincoln's way to insist that he was the elected president of every state, not just the "Northern" ones, and this speech still has the power to stir us because it was the most strenuous possible test of that essential proposition.

A memorial to, and for, all is certainly an improvement on the Arc de Triomphe/Brandenburg Gate style, which was regnant until 1918 and which asserted national exclusivity. Kemal Ataturk did a noble thing when he raised a monument to all those who fell at Gallipoli, and informed the British and Australian peoples that their "Tommies and Johnnies" would lie with his "Alis and Mehmets." But there are also disadvantages to a memorial that is too "inclusive." Not even President Reagan's fine speech at the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc has erased his crass equation of the "victims" at Bitburg cemetery with their victims. Bitburg is not Gettysburg: Some wounds cannot and perhaps should not be healed. The opposite danger also exists: Our "Memorial Day" is now the occasion of a three-day holiday weekend (over the protest of the Veterans of Foreign Wars) and has become somewhat banal precisely because it seems to honor nobody in particular.

The stark concept of "The Unknown Soldier" was the best expression of awe and respect that the century of total war managed to produce. Rudyard Kipling, whose only son, John, was posted as "missing" in 1915 (and whose remains were not found until 15 years ago) was the designer of the official headstone for those soldiers who lay in mass graves and could not even be identified. No pacifist, he nonetheless wrote with scorn of the "jelly-bellied flag-flappers" who lectured schoolboys on the glories of combat. Over time, it is the bleak poetry of Wilfred Owen, and not the inspirational verse of Julian Grenfell and Rupert Brooke, that has come to express the more profound experiences of warfare. Some thoughts must always lie too deep for tears.

Since all efforts at commemoration are bound to fall short, one must be on guard against any attempt at overstatement. In particular, one must resist efforts to ventriloquize the dead. To me, Cindy Sheehan's posthumous conscription of her son is as objectionable as Billy Graham's claim, at the National Cathedral, that all the dead of Sept. 11, 2001 were now in paradise. In the first instance, we have no reason to believe that young Casey Sheehan would ever have supported, and in the second instance we cannot be expected to believe that almost 3,000 New Yorkers all died in a state of grace. Nothing is more tasteless, when set against the reality of death, than the hollow note of demagogy and false sentiment. These things are also subject to unintended consequences. When Dalton Trumbo wrote his leftist antiwar classic "Johnnie Got His Gun," he little expected that it would be used as a propaganda tool by pro-fascist isolationists in the late 1930s, and that he would be protesting in vain that this was not what he had really meant.

"Always think of it: never speak of it." That was the stoic French injunction during the time when the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been lost. This resolution might serve us well at the present time, when we are in midconflict with a hideous foe, and when it is too soon to be thinking of memorials to a war not yet won. This Memorial Day, one might think particularly of those of our fallen who also guarded polling-places, opened schools and clinics, and excavated mass graves. They represent the highest form of the citizen, and every man and woman among them was a volunteer. This plain statement requires no further rhetoric.

Mr. Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is author, most recently, of "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America" (HarperCollins, 2005).