Thoughts on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2022

Thoughts on Memorial Day

Memorial Day, the last Monday of May, is America's day of mourning her war dead. It wasn't officially the federal holiday it is now until 1971, and many towns and cities claim to be the origin of the tradition.

America is a fighting country, and as our slain accumulated, necessity compelled Congress to consolidate the competing names, dates, and occasions for days of remembrance into one overarching day of mourning. That's today. A day many Americans mark by celebrating unbeatable mattress prices. A day other Americans mark by silent prayer, or perhaps a curse word under their breaths as they walk past the folded flag on the mantle that they've grown to see at eye-level in the years since 9/11.

Our dead – why do we mourn their loss? What did these men die for? And why do we keep their memories close?

An idealist might say they died for freedom, for democracy. A pessimist may conclude they died for corporate profits; the teenaged nihilist might go so far as to say they died for nothing. But these conclusions all fall short of a real answer. I think we find an answer worth considering by exploring one of Roman history's best parables: Horatius.

Horatius at the Bridge

Horatius at the Bridge, Charles Le Brun, 1642

Horatius Cocles was a Roman commander in the late 6th century BC who, along with two junior officers, saved his people by making a legendary last stand to prevent an overwhelming enemy from crossing the only bridge into town. From Dionysus:

Herminius and Lartius, their defensive arms being now rendered useless by the continual blows they received, began to retreat gradually.
They order Horatius to retreat with them, but he stood his ground. Understanding the threat to Rome if the enemy were to cross the river, he ordered his men to destroy the bridge.
The enemy was shocked not only by Horatius' suicidal last stand, but also by his decision to use a pile of bodies as a shield wall.

The sheer audacity of Horatius's last stand has been an inspiration to many students of history, Winston Churchill among them. There's a passage from Thomas Babington Macauley's famous 1842 poem, "Horatius At The Bridge," that I see cited from time to time as inspiration:

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,

Thematically, this is inspiring, but it's nothing we don't see even in recent pop history. We all saw this in the movie 300, and in the film adaptation of Blackhawk Down. Admiring the willingness to take defiant action in the face of fearful odds is, spiritually, very American. But why do we admire this? Why do men make the decision to face an avoidable death rather than scurry away?

Horatius didn't have to stand at the end of a bridge as it was destroyed behind him; he could have just surrendered. Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart didn't have to leave their helicopters to try and rescue a downed aircrew. Soldiers could have stayed in their boats on Omaha Beach; the Airborne could have refused to jump. These alternative endings were distinctly possible, but they're virtually unthinkable in the American mind.

So what drives a man to face these fearful odds? To wager a violent death over his principles of virtue?  Zooming out on Macauley's poem and looking at stanzas XXVI-XXVIII gives us a better idea:

But the Consul’s brow was sad,
   And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
   And darkly at the foe.
‘Their van will be upon us
   Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
   What hope to save the town?’

Then out spake brave Horatius,
   The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
   Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
   Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
   And the temples of his Gods,

‘And for the tender mother
   Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
   His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
   Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
   That wrought the deed of shame?

Now we're getting somewhere. What cause could be greater than your culture, your name, your family? Your wife, your child at her breast? Your people, their futures. Honor. These are the reasons men fight and die in wars, in combat.  I don't make the rules, but these are the rules.

Horatius didn't stand and fight at the end of his bridge because he believed in democracy, and he wasn't sent to fight because it profited the blacksmiths and armorers. He wasn't coerced into the task, and it wasn't for naught. His people were being attacked and he put himself in harm's way to stop it.

Decoration Day

For a long time, Memorial Day was called "Decoration Day," because people would decorate the gravestones of war cemeteries as a tribute to the dead. The term fell out of style after the government officially named the holiday Memorial Day.

But there are graves this week to decorate. The makeshift memorials of 19 children and two teachers are being lined with flowers, and families are beginning the process of burying child-sized coffins in the wake of a failing that will forever bring pain to the town of Uvalde and shame to our country as a whole.

At one point, there were as many as nineteen armed police officers in the elementary school hallway, separated from the shooter by the width of a single door. The official story has changed sharply several times now, but at the time of this writing, it appears that botched 'department policy' may have been a reason why officers were waiting rather than engaging the shooter.

There was no Horatius in Uvalde to ignore the order to stand down. And in combat, the price of living by policies rather than principles may sometimes, in fact, be 19 dead children.

I'm not going to use this as a springboard to talk about gun control or other politics. But as it relates to Memorial Day, I'll encourage you to take a moment to contrast the type of man one may find at rest in a war cemetery with the type of man one may find frozen in fear outside of a classroom in Texas.

There's the old adage that if we don't remember the past, we'll be doomed to repeat it. I don't know if I agree with that, because at this point, I think we'd be lucky to get back to the way some things used to be.

We keep the memories of our war dead close. Because as we saw this week, men of resolve, men with heart, should not be taken for granted. When you need one, there's no guarantee he'll be there.

Happy Memorial Day.

That's all for this week, I'll see you next time. For anyone who celebrates this day each year by quietly staring at the wall for a few hours (with or without a bottle of scotch), I'll offer you the best war song you might not have heard before: Lucero - The Blue and the Gray


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