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The Unfinished Work of Memorial Day

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is Memorial Day Weekend, a weekend where we remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank the living veterans, that day is Veteran’s Day. Nor is it the day to thank those men and women who currently wear the uniform and fight the wars of our country. This weekend I am reposting a number of articles from past years to remind my regular readers and those new to my writings about how important this remembrance is, not just to me, but to all of us. I do not say that lightly. Memorial Day is the offspring of the families of the American Civil War dead, when people who lost loved ones in the cause of liberty and the defense of the Union honored their loved ones.

No matter what your political views, ideology, or religious beliefs, please take time to remember the high human cost of freedom this weekend, especially on Monday when we observe Memorial Day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Abraham Lincoln said that “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…” Likewise, Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg said, “Heroism is latent in every human soul – However humble or unknown, they (the veterans) have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all the self-denials – privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-” 

Sometimes it is best to remember that people that lived long before us have profound things to say about subjects that we often address in rather cheap and banal ways. It is easy to do this; in fact many people, especially ideologues and pundits simply quote the great men and women of history simply to buttress what they want to say in much the same manner that preachers from all sides of the theological spectrum will comb the Bible or the Church Fathers to find support for often decidedly un-Christian ideas. Of course unscrupulous preachers of other religions do the same with their sacred texts so it tends be a universal problem.

Of course we should know better than to do this but all of us do it to one degree or another. Even worse are those that will misquote people either to bolster their arguments or to tear down the person that they quote. It should not be that way on Memorial Day. The sacrifices of those that gave “the last full measure” in defense of their homeland, principles and those that they loved are too great to trivialize by using the sacrifices of the fallen to promote themselves as they prepare to launch political campaigns as was recently done by a prominent politician at an annual event which honors veterans in Washington DC.

Gettysburg Address

I think that Abraham Lincoln eulogized the fallen better than almost anyone in the history of our nation when he traveled to Gettysburg and gave a refreshingly short speech for a politician. Lincoln considered the speech a failure but history shows it to be one of the most remarkable ever made by any American public figure.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes gave a speech in 1884 twenty years after his service in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War. A veteran of Antietam and other major engagements he made these remarks in a speech so powerful that it was a key factor in Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to nominate him for the Court.

“Every year–in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life–there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier’s grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march–honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away…

But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

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In his inaugural address President John F. Kennedy a combat veteran of the Solomons Campaign provided a message which though not directly related to Memorial Day certain echoed the themes of the sacrifices of our fallen but also call us to the highest ideals of our nation. As a Naval Officer in command of PT 109 his boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer after which his leadership and courage was a deciding factor in the survival of most of his crew. Kennedy was a child of privilege but he volunteered for the arduous duty of service on the tiny PT Boats. The speech is considered one of the premier speeches by an American President.

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,”² a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself….

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

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In 1984 President Ronald Reagan visited Omaha Beach in Normandy, the site of the bloodiest of the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944. Reagan was a master of rhetoric and understood the importance of his visit to this hallowed site at the apex of the Cold War. At that time it was unimaginable to most people that the Soviet Union would be no more barely 5 years hence and Reagan used the speech to link the sacrifices of those who fought and died at Normandy to those that served in his day. While his focus was on the sacrifice of America and its British, Canadian and French allies that landed on the beaches of Normandy he recognized the sacrifices of the Soviet Union which lost 20 million soldiers and civilians in the war against the Nazis. Reagan said of those who went ashore in Normandy:

“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you….The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.”

President Barak Obama made these remarks a few years ago to conclude his speech following the solemn duty that all Presidents have in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Obama who is vilified by his most extreme opponents, as was Reagan for that matter ended his speech with these comments in which he eloquently expressed what the nation must do for its military, veterans and those killed in action or missing as well as the highest example of the brotherhood that those of us who have served in harm’s way feel for our fellow Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen:

“Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must. We must honor it in our own lives by holding their memories close to our hearts, and heeding the example they set. And we must honor it as a nation by keeping our sacred trust with all who wear America’s uniform, and the families who love them; by never giving up the search for those who’ve gone missing under our country’s flag or are held as prisoners of war; by serving our patriots as well as they serve us — from the moment they enter the military, to the moment they leave it, to the moment they are laid to rest.”

That is how we can honor the sacrifice of those we’ve lost. That is our obligation to America’s guardians — guardians like Travis Manion. The son of a Marine, Travis aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and was accepted by the USS [sic] Naval Academy. His roommate at the Academy was Brendan Looney, a star athlete and born leader from a military family, just like Travis. The two quickly became best friends — like brothers, Brendan said.

After graduation, they deployed — Travis to Iraq, and Brendan to Korea. On April 29, 2007, while fighting to rescue his fellow Marines from danger, Travis was killed by a sniper. Brendan did what he had to do — he kept going. He poured himself into his SEAL training, and dedicated it to the friend that he missed. He married the woman he loved. And, his tour in Korea behind him, he deployed to Afghanistan. On September 21st of last year, Brendan gave his own life, along with eight others, in a helicopter crash.

Heartbroken, yet filled with pride, the Manions and the Looneys knew only one way to honor their sons’ friendship — they moved Travis from his cemetery in Pennsylvania and buried them side by side here at Arlington. “Warriors for freedom,” reads the epitaph written by Travis’s father, “brothers forever.”

The friendship between 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion and Lieutenant Brendan Looney reflects the meaning of Memorial Day. Brotherhood. Sacrifice. Love of country. And it is my fervent prayer that we may honor the memory of the fallen by living out those ideals every day of our lives, in the military and beyond. May God bless the souls of the venerable warriors we’ve lost, and the country for which they died.

Sometimes our fallen are eulogized by the less notable and sometimes oft vilified people. One of these men was Robert Ingersoll, a politician, orator and lecturer as well as an agnostic in a time when that was not a popular belief. Ingersoll was the son of a Congregationalist minister who often preached for revivalist Charles Finney. Ingersoll was also a veteran of the Civil War where he raised and commanded the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment which fought at Shiloh. remarked:

“These heroes are dead. They died for liberty – they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Place of Rest. Earth may run red with other wars – they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for soldiers living and dead: cheers for the living; tears for the dead.”

As we look forward this Memorial Day let us remember those who have given the last full measure of duty for our nation, those who have served those that continue to serve and the friends and loved ones who cherish the lives and memories of each one. Let us remember as a nation, as fellow citizens and never let our own agendas, ambitions or even our baser instincts sully their memory. May we choose the higher calling of service to our country and each other as Americans, the ideals of which are woven in the lives and sacrifices of those that we honor today and as Lincoln said to finish “the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

 

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The Memorial Day Order

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“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln the Gettysburg Address 

As we contemplate the importance of Memorial Day and remember the men and women who gave their lives for this country it is important to remember why we do this. Memorial Day grew out of local observances following the Civil War, a war that claimed the lives of over 620,000 American Soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy. New demographic studies by historians estimate the losses at closer to 750,000. Hundreds of thousands of other people had they lives shattered by the war, killed, wounded, maimed, crippled, shattered in mind and spirit, the country in many places devastated by war’s destruction. Using the 620,000 number that would have meant that 2.5% of the population of the country died in the war. People needed to make sense of the losses.

To put this in perspective, if the same number of Americans were to die today in a way the total would be over seven million people. Seven million my friends. War reached into every home in some way, and sadly or perhaps thankfully we have no concept of such losses today.

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In 1868, Major General John Logan who had been an excellent corps commander during the war was serving as the Commander of the nation’s first true Veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic which gave those veterans a place of refuge in a country that was leaving them behind and forgetting their sacrifice in the name of westward expansion and a growing economy. Let’s face it, money has almost always been more important to Americans than the troops who sacrificed their lives for the nation, but I digress…

Anyway General Logan issued this order on May 5th 1868:

HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC, General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If our eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

By order of

JOHN A. LOGAN,
Commander-in-Chief

N.P. CHIPMAN,
Adjutant General

Official:
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.

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General Logan’s order is remarkable in its frankness and the understanding of the war in the immediate context of its conclusion. In 1868 the day would be observed at 183 cemeteries in 27 States and the following year over 300 cemeteries. Michigan was the first state to make the day a holiday and by 1890 all states in the North had made it so. In the South there were similar observances but the meaning attributed to the events and the sacrifices of the Soldiers of both sides was interpreted quite differently. In the North the Veterans overwhelmingly saw themselves as the saviors of the Union and the liberators of the Slaves. In South it was about the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers in what became known as the “Lost Cause.” But in both regions and all states, the surviving Soldiers, family members and communities honored their dead.

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In 1884 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Frederick Douglass both spoke about the meaning of the sacrifice made by so many.

Holmes, a veteran of the war who had been wounded at Antietam ended his Decoration Day 1884 speech:

“But grief is not the end of all…Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death, — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and glory of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

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Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist who lobbied Lincoln for emancipation and to give Blacks the chance to serve their country had two of his sons serve in the war spoke these wars:

“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.”

It is important for the country not to forget those who served and the cost of those who have given the last full measure of devotion to duty and those who still carry the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds and spirits. I am one of the latter and I have known too many of the former.  Maybe that is why am so distrustful of those who advocate for war but have no skin in the game.

An Alsatian-German Soldier named Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

I agree with him and pray that those who direct the course of this nation will take the words of General Logan, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Frederick Douglass and Guy Sager to heart before they embark on war, and when they remember those that have served.

May we never forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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They Shall Not Have Died in Vain: Memorial Day 2015

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In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1915.

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.

There is a poignant scene in the film The Longest Day in which Richard Burton, playing the wounded British Royal Air Force Flying Officer David Campbell looks at the body of a dead German soldier and says to an American paratrooper who is lost from his unit: 

“It’s funny isn’t it. He’s dead, I’m crippled, you’re lost. Suppose it’s always like that. I mean war.” 

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Back when the movie was filmed in the early 1960s there were still many World War II veterans around and the United States and most Western European nations still had some form of draft or conscription which ensured that most people still had some connection with the military. It’s not like that now. In the United States far these than 1% of the population is serving in the military, and this includes the National Guard and reserves. The numbers are similar throughout Western Europe. Those who have served in combat or even deployed to combat theaters are far fewer. As a result the people of the United States and Western Europe as a whole are so disconnected from military service, not to mention the terrible human cost that is war. As William Tecumseh Sherman said: War is Hell. 

I came back a different man from Iraq. It seems that for me with every passing year Memorial Day becomes more of a melancholy observance. It is a weekend and observance that I feel deeply having lost friends in war and served in Iraq as well as Operation Enduring Freedom. It is also a day in which I feel more and more disconnected from the vast majority of my fellow Americans. I don’t know, but just from my observation it seems that for most Americans the weekend serves as not much more than the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer holiday and vacation season.

Now I could be wrong, but it seems to me that for most Americans, the vast majority who have themselves never served a day in uniform and who have no more than a passing relationship with anyone who is either serving in our current wars or has served in any war, that war is at best a spectator sport.

This is an attitude that has been nurtured by our politicians of all parties, political pundits and preachers for decades. As a result there is a grave disconnect between the society at large and the men and women who serve in the military and in our wars.

To be fair I don’t think it is a matter of ordinary people not caring, not that at all. Many do and I am thankful to them. That being said there are many who though they say they support the troops find war to be some sort of sporting event where we send our heroes out to do battle against the enemies of freedom, while making no sacrifices themselves and even call military health care, retirement benefits and disability pensions “entitlement programs” which need to be reigned in. Yes, that is right. Send the volunteers to war and then abandon them. Sadly, with the exception of the end of World War Two, this is always how this nation has treated its veterans and their families.

The real fact of the matter is that the wars that we have fought since World War II have not been national affairs. If they were we would not be continually fighting wars that most people neither understand and which in many if not most cases we would be better off staying out of completely. That being said I am appreciative of those who do things to care for and honor our veterans, honor our fallen and do practical things for the survivors. There are some really wonderful people, many who have never served who do what they can for those who fight and die in or come back forever changed from these misbegotten and unpopular wars.

At the same time there are a lot of what I call War Porn addicts, especially the pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot get enough of war. As a Christian I hate to say that many of the worst of the war porn addicts are the supposedly Christian pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot seem to find enough new wars to get us involved in even as we struggle to deal with what is on our plate already. If you ask me these sons-of-bitches are traitors who do not love the troops, do not love this country and should be forced into the front line so they can see, smell and taste death.

What I find the most offensive are the war mongers and profiteers who have never served. I feel this way about those who did all that they could to avoid serving in the military and those who did the very minimum to satisfy outward appearances of service while avoiding anything difficult, especially deployment to combat zones. Of the latter I can think of five to six currently serving and very outspoken conservative members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that fit the description. I shan’t mention the members of the previous Presidential administration who through their outright lies caused the deaths of nearly 4500 American military personnel in Iraq. I speak about men who in their writings, their appearances on news networks and their think tanks and corporations that do nothing but profit off of war. Some are current or former politicians, others supposedly “academics” and others men who smell a profit in war. 

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I find such people to be loathsome and wonder how on Memorial Day weekend they can show their faces. But then they are rather shameless. Sometimes their actions make me wonder if the sacrifices made by those who serve are in vain. However, I strive to resist that and pray that our sacrifices will not be in vain. While they profit from war others pay the bill and it has always been this way. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor wrote after World War One in his book War is a Racket:

“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

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Maybe I feel this way because I grew up in a military family where my dad was frequently deployed and served in Vietnam, a place where some of my friends fathers died, and because I have been in the military 32 years between the Army and the Navy. Maybe it is partly because I am a military historian, theologian, priest and chaplain who has seen the horrors of war and the wounds that remain for life in the bodies, minds and spirits of those that fight in them. I cannot speak of how my heart feels when I see young men and women, wounded in war, their lives forever changed bravely struggling to go on even as the war mongers, war profiteers and chicken-hawks profit off of their suffering. As I said before, these people are traitors and if I had my way we would drive them at bayonet point into the arms of the Islamic State so they can taste what war is all about. Maybe then these sons-of-bitches would think twice before sending another young American to die so they might make a profit.

So for me this is a rather melancholy time. A time where I struggle a time when I get so angry. That being said I also echo the words of Civil War Veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who spoke these words in 1895:

“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…. nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

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I honor the fallen, my brothers and sisters who have given the last full measure of devotion in serving this country, those that I know personally or have served with and those who did so before I was every born. Why you might ask? 

The reason is simple and I think that Abraham Lincoln said it best as he closed his Gettysburg Address:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, vietnam, War on Terrorism, world war one, world war two in europe

Remembering Why We Keep Memorial Day

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“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…”

Nearly 20 years after the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. then serving as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court spoke on Memorial Day 1884 in Keene New Hampshire at a gathering of veterans. He recalled an incident not long before where he had heard a young man ask “why people still kept up Memorial Day. The question was one that he pondered before his speech and that he attempted to find an answer, not to his fellow veterans who certainly understood their shared memories of war “but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories.”

I think that having an answer for the question is as timely now as when Holmes first pondered it. Though his war was twenty years past and had torn the nation apart, there were still many men on both sides who had served in that terrible time and but even so many people were not only forgetting the war and the sacrifices made by so many but intent on becoming rich. Something that he would directly state in a Memorial Day address to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1895:

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in the Civil War

“The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any other grievance. Most of my hearers would rather that their daughters or their sisters should marry a son of one of the great rich families than a regular army officer, were he as beautiful, brave, and gifted as Sir William Napier. I have heard the question asked whether our war was worth fighting, after all. There are many, poor and rich, who think that love of country is an old wife’s tale, to be replaced by interest in a labor union, or, under the name of cosmopolitanism, by a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most enjoyment may be had at the least cost.”

However his message to his fellow veterans, mostly men from his own former regiment, the 20th Massachusetts was quite personal and something that they could find meaning in. Holmes understood war, he had seen much action and had been wounded at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Chancellorsville. He talked of the shared experience of war, something that those who have fought in our nation’s wars, as well as combat veteran soldiers in other countries can understand far more than people that have only known peace, even while their countrymen are at war.

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Holmes remembrances of the war and the comrades that he and those present had served with, those living and those dead is powerful. Many of us who have served in the wars that began on September 11th 2001 have lost friends in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and many more who are wounded or maimed in body, mind and spirit. Many survivors of wounds today would have died in previous wars.

Likewise his descriptions of the memories of war, triggered by “accidents” are real to those that have experienced war and combat.

“Accidents may call up the events of the war. You see a battery of guns go by at a trot, and for a moment you are back at White Oak Swamp, or Antietam, or on the Jerusalem Road. You hear a few shots fired in the distance, and for an instant your heart stops as you say to yourself, The skirmishers are at it, and listen for the long roll of fire from the main line. You meet an old comrade after many years of absence; he recalls the moment that you were nearly surrounded by the enemy, and again there comes up to you that swift and cunning thinking on which once hung life and freedom–Shall I stand the best chance if I try the pistol or the sabre on that man who means to stop me? Will he get his carbine free before I reach him, or can I kill him first?These and the thousand other events we have known are called up, I say, by accident, and, apart from accident, they lie forgotten.”

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We all have our memories of our wars, those of us who remain, be we veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea or World War II. It is hard to believe that so few remain from World War II and Korea, and that even the Vietnam veterans are aging rapidly, most now in their 60s or 70s. In as much as the wars of the past decade have been fought by a tiny minority of American citizens fewer and fewer will understand the bond that we share through our memories of the living and the dead. We have been set apart by our experiences, even though the wars that we have fought differ in many ways.

As such we should whenever possible take the time to meet and remember. That might be as groups of friends, unit associations or perhaps local chapters of Veterans organizations. We do this to remember but also to remind ourselves that we cannot live in the past alone, for the present likewise calls us to action, even after our service is complete.

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Holmes put it well: “When we meet thus, when we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living, we do not deceive ourselves. We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.”

We remember the past, we remember our fallen and we remember the families who have lost loved ones in these wars as well as those whose lives have been changed and maybe even torn apart by the changes that war has wrought in their loved ones who returned different from war. In our service we have been set apart and as such as Holmes so well states we have the duty to “bear the report to those who will come after us.” His words carry forth to us today, we few we happy few as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote.

“nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.” 

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I will remember my time in Iraq and those that I served alongside. I will also remember friends who served in other units who did not return as well as those Marines, Sailors and Soldiers that I see every day in our Naval Hospital suffering from the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war.

This weekend I will remember and on Monday, that sacred day that we set aside to remember the fallen I take some time at noon to join in that time of remembrance and pray that maybe someday war will be no more.

That is why I think that we should remember Memorial Day even if others forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, shipmates and veterans, vietnam