Sacrifice, Pain, and Grief
This article was published on Monday, May 29 - Memorial Day, 2007:
The nation pays its respects today to those who have fallen in America’s wars. The central ritual of our communal bereavement takes place with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington , Va. Because those remains are anonymous, they are fitting representatives of the entire legion of war dead, who are the focus of affection on Memorial Day.When we send men and women off to battle for the sake of the nation’s greater good, we promise that, should they not return, their sacrifice will always be remembered. It is the minimum such heroes are due. But because the nation is at war today, the observance has special poignancy, and added pain. Like numerous graves at Arlington, the grief of all too many families is fresh. Given the kind of war this is, however, the mourning is for more than departed individuals.
Is it presumptuous to imagine we can know something about those whose lives were lost, perhaps even the “unknowns”? The military women and men who have been killed in war wanted more from life than they got. They began by believing in a higher cause, but ended up, from every frontline report, caring most about the buddies to their right and left. They saw the horrors of combat, but what really frightened them was the threat of moral collapse as feelings of anger, fear, and, perhaps, revenge replaced the stately cohesion of the drill.
Trained in glory, they died in absurdity. On Memorial Day, can we pay tribute to the dead without falsifying what befell them?
“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted,” the Vietnam novelist Tim O’Brien wrote, “or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” O’Brien says that the hallmarks of truth, when it comes to war stories, are obscenity and evil. “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you.”
Such dark notes are struck by the chroniclers of every war, going back to Homer, but they seem especially apt when those being mourned have fallen in a war that, even before its end, has already shown itself to have been mistaken from its first trumpet.
That recognition compounds American grief on this Memorial Day. In addition to the bright faced young men and women for whom taps has sounded, “a secure sense of the goodness of the social order is irretrievably lost and must be mourned.” The psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, treating veterans, wrote that in response to Vietnam, but the observation applies equally to Iraq.
Even the most diehard of American commanders and politicians show signs of recognizing the strategic and (therefore) moral futility of the war in Iraq, which is why they are tangled in the impossible snares of what-to-do-now. The nation, meanwhile, has a larger problem, which is only apparently less pressing: How to reckon with the strategic and moral damage the United States has done and is still doing to the shared well-being of the human family?
In addition to the lives it has needlessly destroyed, the war has helped ignite the most volatile region on earth; it has polluted US relations with former allies; and it has resuscitated the armed suspicions of former enemies. What of more value has been lost than the golden opportunity at the end of the Cold War to further empty nuclear arsenals, to midwife international structures of law, to heal the planet’s poisoned environment, to address the global crisis of southern poverty?
Memorial Day is a time of social grief. We deliberately call to mind the names and faces of the dead. We attend to their selfless patriotism, and the courage with which they conducted themselves. We insist that, no matter how misbegotten the cause in which they died, they did not die in vain.
In the glorious past, that faith depended on carrying wars forward to the point of victory, which alone redeemed the mortal loss. But now, we eulogize the heroes without approving the war that killed them. Because today’s national desolation must include a larger grief for lost American virtue, the determination that the fallen not have died in vain requires that their sacrifice be taken as a fuller opening to the truths both of what our leaders have wrought, and of the responsibility that belongs to us all.
The proper memorial to the war in Iraq is its immediate end.