“Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”
Dwight David Eisenhower
Guildhall Address, London, June 12, 1945
Every national holiday develops traditions that pass from generation to generation. Except for Armistice Day–now called Veterans Day–no holiday is observed with more melancholy than is Memorial Day. But this day, unlike, say, July Fourth, seems to have developed two traditions depending on whether or not the United States is at peace or the armed forces are in a hot war when the last weekend of May arrives.
On the surface, the rituals are the same: flags flying and wreaths laid at monuments and tombs by officials from president to mayors or, where even these latter do not exist, by organizations of veterans, by individuals, and always–always–by relatives of the dead.
While the symbols may be unitary and unchanging, the tenor of the rhetoric at “official”” ceremonies has tended to follow one of two traditions depending on whether the nation is at war or at peace. In years when the country is at peace, speeches traditionally dwell on previous generations whose “ultimate sacrifice” preserved the freedom and liberties enjoyed by present generations and the obligation of today’s citizenry to safeguard this heritage for following generations.
In that orators can range across past “glories” and sweep the broad horizon of future national greatness when the country is at peace, these are the easy years. Unfortunately, we have not experienced such a year since Memorial Day 2001, as reflected in the more than 3,820 U.S. military dead in Afghanistan and Iraq or–as noted by former assistant defense secretary John Hamre–in the transformation of the nation’s spirit from “confident and proud to paranoid and angry.”
So what should, what can, what needs to be said on Memorial Day in those years when the nation is in a war–particularly when the war is one a president chose to begin; when the U.S. had neither been attacked nor was in imminent danger of attack; when war was “justified” to the public and the Congress by the selective use of highly suspicious (even false) intelligence to create and then exaggerate the fiction of a threat–a war that not only was unnecessary but also was launched in defiance of the United Nations Security Council and in violation of the UN Charter?
In war years, traditionally the first–or very nearly the first–theme in a speech by any public official is some variation on the need to continue “supporting the troops in the field.” This might be connected with a more emotionally charged call, either implicit or explicit, for “victory” so that those who have died in the current conflict “will not have died in vain.”
Then comes the awkward transition from the soaring poetry of patriotism and duty answered to the melancholy prose about promising careers cut short and contributions to community and country forever unrealized. Some speakers try to finesse the transition by using a variation of General George S. Patton’s comment on the occasion of his visit to the Allied Forces cemetery in Palermo, Italy on Armistice Day 1943: “In my mind, we came here to thank God that men like these have lived rather than to regret that they have died.” Others choose a theme echoing that on a tombstone in the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur Mer in Normandy (Omaha Beach): “Think not upon their passing but remember the glory of their spirit.” While Patton esteems the dedication that once moved those buried at Palermo to answer the nation’s call in its time of peril–and died–the marker at Omaha Beach suggests the need to move beyond esteeming lives lived and lost for liberty and seek to identify and live in harmony with the highest principles of shared humanity.
This Memorial Day, young men and women will have been dying in combat in Iraq for more than four years. As emotionally devastating as is death whenever it happens, the poignancy seems intensified in communities (especially within the military community) when the loss comes just before Memorial Day.
A death in point, one that entered the public domain in May 2007 through the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, various blogs and other unofficial sources, is that of Marine Corps Major Douglas Zembiec killed in Baghdad May 11. A 1995 graduate of the Naval Academy, his funeral was May 16 at the Naval Academy Chapel with burial in Arlington National Cemetery. The May 17 Post, under a front-page color photograph of the burial site, noted that more than 1,000 people attended the service in the academy chapel.
May 11 was four months and one day after President Bush told the people of the United States that he would ignore their clearly expressed direction, recorded in the 2006 mid-term election that returned control of Congress to Democrats, to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. Instead, the president announced that he would increase the U.S. presence by five brigade combat teams (approximately 21,000 troops) through extending tours of troops already in-country and speeding the deployment of units already scheduled for duty in Iraq.
From the quantity and breadth of tributes and reminiscences one can find from Zembiec’s friends and acquaintances, he will be remembered for his dedication to the Marines, his professional leadership as a warrior, the welfare of those in his unit, and his care and compassion for his troops. And he deserves to be remembered for his unwavering insistence that no matter the situation, no matter how terrible the fighting and how severe the losses, nothing justifies unlawful conduct:
– not the reality that most Iraqis view U.S. troops as occupiers, not liberators;
– not the repetitive separations from families that introduce additional and sometimes unbearable pressure on marriages; not the psychological impact of “mission time creep”–that is, arbitrarily lengthening combat tours in the pursuit of “victory”;
– not the constant, 24 hour, seven days per week stress of being in an active combat zone where there is no place safe from the enemy;
– not the fear that arises from knowing that the overwhelming majority of the people age hostile to your presence but in varying degrees–and you have no sure way to know who among the hostile population may be willing (or is trying) to kill you;
– not even watching men and women in the unit, friends and comrades-in-arms, be killed by road-side bombs or suicide truck bombers.
To say all the above is, however, to say only that humanity has been able to place some minimal limits on how an essential inhumane activity is performed. After the bloodiest 100 years of recorded history, disputes continue to be settled predominately through the application of the technology of death rather than through the arts of mediation, conciliation, and reconciliation that are the silent plea of all of the victims of war– warriors, civilians, families, friends, all of humanity.
In the end, only when this silence is broken will humankind begin to move beyond the recurring cycles of war and the rhetoric that elevates “dying for” (so that others will not “have died in vain”) above “living for” in the hierarchy of human principles. It is past time to break this silence, to declare that “support for the troops” is not demonstrated by continuing to increase the number of tombs and monuments on which flags and flowers will be placed next year.
In short, 2007 is an opportunity to reintegrate the two rhetorical traditions that have evolved out of Memorial Day observances. To die for a cause is easier than to live for and in accordance with a principle. But only when the majority of humans are willing to make the effort for life will Memorial Day become a memorial to the end of warfare.
Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at email@example.com.