In Flanders Fields the poppies blowBetween the crosses row on row,That mark our place; and in the skyThe larks, still bravely singing, flyScarce heard amid the guns below.We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,Loved and were loved, and now we lieIn Flanders fields.Take up our quarrel with the foe:To you from failing hands we throwThe torch; be yours to hold it high.If ye break faith with us who dieWe shall not sleep, though poppies growIn Flanders fields.
[In Flanders Fields, LtCol John McCrae(1872-1918), MD, Canadian Army]
We often mystagogue about the moral confusion of our day. But we degrade that phrase “moral confusion” when viewed through the eyes of an American warrior, from 1775 to the present day. The same can be said for anyone of any nation who has been cast in the duty of battle.
Victor Davis Hanson, a Classics professor, historian, and farmer, summed this up nicely back in 2003:
Battle also is not merely a logical continuance of politics, but an abnormal event in which thousands of warriors — most often in the past, young male adults — are freed to kill each other for a few hours, a dramatic and strange experience bound to change their lives and the fate of their families and friends for centuries thereafter.
The American warrior, be he a soldier, marine, seaman, or airman, accepts violence and even death so that the our nation and much of the world can live in peace. For those who have never been in battle, which includes me, imagine the moral dilemma. At a moment in your life when you are at grave risk of being killed, you must do your duty, which includes the killing of others. Is this war just? Is this engagement a necessity? Is my target a combatant? Am I killing enough? Am I sending my enemy to eternal rest or fire? Am I still in the state of grace after all this killing?
While warfare has been a permanent fixture in human history, and the warrior instinct remains intact even in our civil society, we all recognize that it is antithetical to the peaceful existence that we take for granted. The free nation that we live in today, flawed as it is, was built on the deaths of men who put their very souls on the line. The calling of battle reaches beyond heroism. Yes, their reasons for being in the battle may not be so noble as I suggest. But regardless, the service was rendered. Our respect and our eternal gratitude needs to be returned.
The piece of the aforementioned author, from his book The Ripples of Battle, begins with this:
On my rare visits to the local cemetery, I am always struck by the unremarkable grave of Victor Hanson. The inscription is as spare as the stone itself — name, state, rank, dates of birth and death, and nothing much more except the nondescript "29 Marines / 6 Marine Div / World War II." Unlike the other impressive tombstones of relatives in the family plot, there are no inscribed res gestae, not even a "loving father" much less a "beloved grandfather." A man who dies tragically, young, and alone does so without capital, either monetary or human. When he leaves behind no progeny, it is evident in the modesty of his commemoration.
But then his mother died in childbirth, his father was blinded in the vineyard by a sulfur-machine accident. He was killed at twenty-three, without wife or children, his body eventually shipped back and reinterred in Kingsburg, California. And because Victor was an only child, when he died on Okinawa, his father Victor Hanson's thin line perished as well. Had his memory vanished as well?
Certainly there are no Hansons left of Victor's direct ancestry to appreciate the significance of his modest epitaph, whose calculus — death recorded on May 19, 1945, serving in the 29th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company F of the 6th Marine Division — reflected his presence at the nexus of one of the worst days of the bloodiest campaign in the Pacific theater, the final assault and capture of Sugar Loaf Hill and its environs.
Yet without ostentatious stones, lasting works of fame, or any surviving immediate family, had the childless, young Victor Hanson really perished on that godforsaken hill with dozens of his friends on May 18? Surely not. Growing up, I heard his name nearly daily. My father was his first cousin, but the two were more like brothers, given their near-identical ages and lifelong companionship; for a time they lived side-by-side on adjoining farms, went to the same college, and joined the Marines. And so it was that the last half century our parents talked often about this mysterious dead man. "If only Vic had lived," the refrain went, followed by all sorts of counterfactuals concerning the subsequent sad fate of his father, his high school and college prospects, whom he might have married, children reared, partnerships entered with my father, grandparents consoled, college work that presaged future success, farms saved — rather than people saddened, sickened, and cast adrift, and homesteads soon to be sold or lost. I began as a child almost to resent this shadowy moral exemplar, who had died without making a mistake, thus leaving his namesake with the burden of emulating such character.
This is a moving story with a point we easily forget. The sacrifice of war echoes beyond the mere loss of an individual. I guess that stands to reason. If a man is to fight for a cause greater than himself, his sacrifice will also be shared well beyond himself. The bigger the man, the bigger the ripple his death will send.
In this fallen world of our, war has not ceased to be necessary. Some people simply can’t handle that fact. Peace has never been won in geopolitical terms by using the ostrich approach. But as necessary as it is, it is also dysfunctional. One cannot expect, even when fighting for an ultimate just cause, as we did in World War II, that each engagement is a justified step. As it turns out, our most costly battle of that great conflict remains strategically ambiguous sixty years after the fact:
Given the large number of American dead on Okinawa, I do not believe that the good and experienced men who planned the storming of Okinawa — Operation Iceberg — in the luxury suites of the San Francisco St. Francis Hotel were all that wise in the manner of their war making. Neither do I give all that much credence to the United States Army's official narrative of the campaign, which concluded with the confident excuse, "The military value of Okinawa exceeded all hope." I acknowledge that both traditional and revisionist historians have only scorn for those like me who question the need for or the logic of Iceberg — and I can offer no alternative to the strategy of taking the island that might have ensured fewer dead on either side. Surely I do not know how the Americans could have gone ahead with plans to invade Japan with the knowledge that they either could not or would not eliminate first a veteran army of 110,000 Japanese on Okinawa at their rear. And I also know that others more illustrious died on Okinawa — Ernie Pyle, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner himself, and several Medal of Honor winners. And I grant that the death of a twenty-three-year-old farm boy I never met from Kingsburg, California, pales besides two hundred thousand combined Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians incinerated, blown apart, and slowly starved to death that summer. Yes, I accept all that, but I also know of the wide ripples of one man's death, and as I look at his ring they have not ended — at least not quite yet.
As we observe the sacrifice of those who accepted the call to fight for our nation, let’s do so with our eyes open to the enormity of that sacrifice. We can’t put ourselves in their combat boots, but we certainly can do more than grill on the patio, read a book, or mow the lawn. We can make their heroism a deeper part of our lives. Remember them. Pray for them. Learn about them. Pass to the next generation the value of duty to country. Live a life worthy of their sacrifice. Fight the political battles for a more virtuous America.
Every Sunday, we are reminded of that perfect sacrifice of our Blessed Lord. Memorial Day should remind us that many have taken His commandment seriously.
Eternal rest grant unto them, o Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon them
May the souls of our fallen men and women in service to the United States of America and all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Victor Davis Hanson’s four part series from National Review Online can be read here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. He unearths the mystery under the inconspicuous grave stone and reveals the enormous cost and impact of war.