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Memorial Day 2013


The famous poem by the Canadian John McCrae commemorates the dead from the terrible trench warfare battles of World War One, but it is worth remembering today, as Americans (including a WRM nephew) are putting their lives on the line in another country where poppies bloom.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

What makes this poem so memorable, I think, is that it doesn’t just see the soldiers as victims. Their lives are more than a tragic waste; we have not done our duty by them if we simply bewail their deaths and move on.

These soldiers were there for a reason; like the Americans who fought for the Union in our Civil War, they were fighting for a cause that was bigger than they were, that was worthy of the sacrifice they made. Those who die for freedom, or to protect their homes and families from invaders and aggression cannot be pitied and dismissed as victims. They must be honored and respected as warriors, as men whose service ennobled them and calls forth an answering sense of dedication among the living.

There is a subtle and sometimes not so subtle belittlement of the dead from those who simply pity the brave young men who went to war but did not return. There are those who see them as deluded by cynical politicians — the young and the naive who were sacrificed to the cynical ambitions of demagogues and profiteers. There are those who think they have performed their duty to the fallen if they pity the folly of the dead and the darkness of the times in which they lived.

Pity and compassion can be noble emotions, but wallowing in these feelings is not what Memorial Day should be about. Our duty to the fallen is not just one of remembrance, or of caring for the wounded or those the warriors left behind. We also owe a debt of emulation: to continue to fight and if necessary to die for the great causes of our time. To fight an ideology of hatred that masks itself as religion is a noble and a generous thing to do; those who give their lives in the fight against this great evil are not victims. They are heroes, and they deserve to be remembered as such.

Not every soldier who dies, dies on a critical mission. That is not the nature of war. Some skirmishes are sideshows; not every encounter determines a battle, not every battle determines a campaign, and not every campaign leads to victory and peace. The generals who ordered those boys and young men into No Man’s Land in Flanders were incompetent bunglers more often than not. This does not vitiate the heroism or render meaningless the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives in that war.

The Americans who have fallen in battle, and especially those who have fallen since 9/11, demand more from us than our pity. Their sacrifice demands that we live up to the values for which they gave their lives. Their memory demands that we embrace the generosity with which they placed themselves in harm’s way for our sake and that we dedicate ourselves to the values of liberty and toleration whose banners they followed to the end of the world.

Memorial Day must also be a day of dedication; if the dead do not inspire us, we have not grasped the meaning that shaped their lives.

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

[Trench warfare image courtesy of Wikimedia]

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  • ljgude

    Well said. When I walk the Confederate line at Gettysburg, I, a New Hampshire man notice that those men were heroes too. That is the even more solemn nature of Civil War, where ‘the other’is your own kith and kin. Still, soldiers who survive, sometimes in the fullness of time, come to a feeling of respect for their former foes. Some don’t. I am recalling listening to a WW2 vet who was dying of cancer at the time wondering if his being posted to Nagasaki at end of the war had been the cause of his disease. He recounted how he had not slept in a bed all the ensuing years only being able to sleep sitting up in a chair and that he had never been able to forgive the Japanese he had fought against. He didn’t ask for or receive pity from me or from the Vietnam vet who listened with me. There was only sadness and respect. Thank you for a great post.

  • Anthony

    “we have not done our duty by them if we simply bewail their deaths and move on…” Well said WRM and thanks.

  • gs

    Draftees, also, answered the call, usually did their duty to the best of their ability, and sometimes paid the ultimate price.

  • chilloutyo

    Memorial Day is for appreciating those who fought against the enemies of freedom. The tea parties are continuing that tradition by fighting the progressives in the Republican and Democrat Parties. (Also posted at Breitbart).

  • jeburke

    Amen. Courage is the first virtue that makes all the other virtues possible.

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