Column for 25 May, 2008
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.”
On an occasion such as Memorial Day, I usually find my own meager words inadequate. Others with far more talent have eloquently captured the spirit of this day, and of the sacrifice of those we remember on this day.
“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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not 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.” (Abraham Lincoln, 1863). Perhaps the most famous and familiar American words on the sacrifice of veterans, Lincoln succinctly invoked humility, pride, and inspiration.
“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.” (John McCrae, 1915). McCrae, a surgeon with Canadian forces during World War One, never returned home from his war; he died of pneumonia in France in 1918.
“They went with songs to the battle, they were young. Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, They fell with their faces to the foe. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them. Lest we forget.” (Laurence Binyon, 1914).
“Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo, Shovel them under and let me work--I am the grass; I cover all. And pile them high at Gettysburg; And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. Shovel them under and let me work. Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: What place is this? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work.” (Carl Sandburg, 1918). One of America’s greatest poets and authors wrote these words, somewhat bitter and perhaps cynical, at the end of what was then grandiosely titled “The Great War to Save Mankind,” a phrase inscribed on a medal presented to my paternal grandfather, Ross Edward Barkman, for his service in that conflict. There is an old photograph of him from that time, wearing his high-collar Army uniform, peering out at me, his features uncannily reflected in the face of my oldest son, the great-grandson he never met. Another portrait, this one in my maternal grandmother’s house in Midland shows my other grandfather in the Navy uniform he wore during World War Two. He preferred not to talk about the things he saw during that time. Now we are engaged in another war, one which has already lasted longer than either of the two world wars my grandfathers fought in. More than 4,000 young men and women have died to date, with some 30,000 officially acknowledged as wounded to varying degrees. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.” Reasonable minds may differ about the necessity or rightness of this war, though most of them do so from the comfort and safety of their air-conditioned homes or studios; surely, though, everyone can agree that we owe more to the veterans, living and dead, and their families, than magnetic yellow ribbons mass-produced in China and sold without irony at gas stations to be affixed to monstrous gas-guzzling SUVs. Surely, if young people are willing to put on uniforms, take up arms, and travel halfway across the world to risk their lives, we at the very least can guarantee to them the best health care in the world for the rest of their lives and the chance for a college education upon their return? Isn’t that the absolute minimum we who have sacrificed virtually nothing can do to honor the memory of those who “gave the last full measure of devotion”?