Saturday, August 19, 2017

In Honor of The Ordinary Soldier

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

Flanders Fields, John McCrae, 1915
The site was beautiful, understated, lush. The lawns were trimmed close, monuments in neat rows. Some graves were marked with crosses, others plaques. They were the honored dead, men who had fallen in battle in the service of their country. They agreed, they disagreed - maybe they didn't even understand why their service was necessary. The enemy had killed them, and here they slept, forever.

It was the summer of 1972. I was seventeen, visiting Europe with my aunt, uncle and cousin. We were at the Sandweiler German military cemetery in Luxembourg, a mile from the American military cemetery where George S. Patton is buried. Here approximately eleven thousand men are interred, most killed during the Battle of the Bulge.

In the law, it's called "Neutral principles." That is, are there guidelines that are readily applicable to everyone, regardless of race, nationality or some other status? They are often described as content-neutral.

I wonder, given the uproar about Civil War monuments, graves and remembrances, if a little sanity isn't in order.

Doesn't a country deserve to honor the men and women who fall in its service?

It doesn't matter if that country won or lost. The reason for the war, and its prosecution, might have been of the noblest moral purpose, or the foulest depths of depravity. The lost might have been a great person, or a fool.

 But you're gambling with those boys' lives. . .
. . .just to beat Montgomery into Messina.
lf you pull it off, you're a hero, but if you don't. . . .
What happens to them? The ordinary combat soldier.
He doesn't share in your dreams of glory, he's stuck here.
He's living out every day, day-to-day, with death tugging at his elbow
. General Omar Bradley to General George Patton, Sicily, 1943.

Recently, a man traveled to Japan. He had in his possession a flag he had taken from the body of a fallen Japanese soldier on the Marianas island of Saipan. It had been signed by friends of the fallen, wishing him well. He was an ordinary soldier, called to duty by his country.

This is not to say that ostentatious monuments to generals and politicians who intentionally fought to preserve the savage, hateful institution of slavery are beyond scrutiny. Each should be evaluated individually, not only for its intent at the time it was placed, but for the things for which it has come to stand. This doesn't erase history. It merely applies a bit of perspective.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led his Union troops into battle in 1863. He was killed, along with most of his troops. He was buried in a common grave with them, an intended slight on the part of the enemy troops who saw to the burial. Shaw's father saw it differently:

 We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers....We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has.

God bless the fallen, that their memory survives the petty politics of the moment.

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