Remembering What I’ve Never Known


One of the most moving Memorial Day speeches ever given is remembered as much for how the speaker stood as for what was said. When Gen. Lucian Truscott, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, spoke at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy on Memorial Day in 1945, he turned his back on the audience, and spoke directly to the nearly 20,000 American soldiers buried there, apologizing to them for their deaths. Even Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who had a reputation for ruthlessly skewering hypocrisy among generals, called it “the most moving gesture I ever saw.”

Fifty-four years later, I had the daunting task of writing a Memorial Day speech for my boss to deliver at the same cemetery. My boss at the time was the admiral who commanded the U.S. Joint Task Force supporting the Kosovo bombing campaign. Had I been tempted to suggest that he try to copy Truscott’s address to the fallen (a false gesture the admiral would have rejected out of hand), the disparity in casualties would have quickly pointed out the inadvisability of that approach. Rather than the thousands of dead to whom Truscott spoke, the 78-day bombing campaign in Kosovo cost the lives of two U.S. servicemembers — the crew of an AH-64 Apache who were killed in a mishap during a training flight.

Many Americans on Memorial Day are trying to commemorate or remember something they’ve never personally known. In her powerful book, This Republic of Suffering, historian Drew Gilpin Faust explores how the experience of Americans who lost loved ones in the Civil War shaped American attitudes and practices surrounding death, dying, and the responsibility of the living to the memory of the dead. One American in 50 died during that war. The personal experience of loss was shared by nearly everyone. Since Sept. 12, 2001, just over 7,000 U.S. service personnel and Department of Defense civilians have died in the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Using the most recent census numbers, that works out to slightly less than one American in 50,000.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of the grief experienced by those who have lost comrades or loved ones in America’s wars. This is especially true when society exalts military service — veneration of the military imbues war deaths with an intimidating distance and nobility, which can make attempts at empathy feel inadequate. But Truscott’s example shows a powerful way for those of us who haven’t experienced such loss to honor the sacrifice of those who have: Acknowledge our responsibility for the choice to fight the wars in which those lives were lost.

Giving Meaning to Loss

President Ronald Reagan’s speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, 1984, was one of the most noted Memorial Day speeches of the Vietnam era, even though it was delivered nine years after the American role in the conflict ended. In his remarks, Reagan said of Vietnam veterans that they were “never defeated in battle and were heroes as surely as any who have ever fought in a noble cause.” At the conclusion of his speech, he awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to an unknown soldier who was killed in that war and whose remains were added to the Tomb of the Unknowns. In bestowing the honor, Reagan remarked:

We will never know the answers to … questions about his life. We do know, though, why he died. He saw the horrors of war but bravely faced them, certain his own cause and country’s cause was a noble one, that he was fighting for human dignity, for free men everywhere.

Reagan’s speech was intended to valorize the deaths of those who died in Vietnam and give their deaths a shared national meaning. This was complicated by the degree to which Americans had been deeply divided over the meaning of the war, and the way in which traditional invocations of valor were sullied by graphic images broadcast nightly into America’s living rooms, showing the horrors of the war, including those perpetrated by American troops.

Veterans of the modern American wars in the Middle East do not face the type of rejection and societal blame that many Vietnam veterans experienced. Instead, the praise heaped on soldiers and veterans can, at times, seem overwhelming. A burgeoning military appreciation-industrial complex capitalizes on public esteem for the military to promote everything from professional sports to automobiles. Servicemembers are feted on Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day, and during National Military Appreciation Month. Yellow ribbon magnets adorn cars. Grocery stores ask if customers want to round up their bill to the next dollar, with the difference going to support servicemembers.

It’s easy to group Memorial Day in with other public rituals of appreciation for those who serve or served in uniform. But Memorial Day is supposed to be different. Theologian Horace Bushnell outlined how in an 1865 speech to Yale alumni entitled “Our Obligations to the Dead.” Though delivered before the creation of Decoration Day in 1868 (which became more commonly known as Memorial Day after World War II — the name was officially changed in 1971), Bushnell’s oration perfectly presages the themes of many subsequent Memorial Day speeches, such as the obligation to appreciate “the grand public motive to which [the dead] gave up their life.”

In discussing what was owed to the fallen, Bushnell first argued that the dead ought to be given their “due share of the victory and the honors of victory.” Victory, for him, was not understood solely as a battlefield triumph, but more so the attainment of the moral good for which the war was fought. Measured against this standard, the effort to valorize and give meaning to the sacrifices of both the Vietnam War and modern American wars is more challenging than awarding a medal and describing battlefield heroics. While some American soldiers displayed great heroism and U.S. forces were rarely, if ever, defeated in individual battles, the strategic success and moral meaning of these wars remains contested and ambiguous, at best.

Finding Personal Meaning on Memorial Day

I served on active duty in the Navy for 21 years. America was at war for over half of that time, but I never truly went to war. I fired cruise missiles into Iraq from the Red Sea, and I spent a few days on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as a ship driver my experience of war — even in uniform — was quite different from that of many of my friends. I did not lose close friends or comrades in combat. In this way, my struggle to find personal meaning in Memorial Day is the same as many other Americans: I work to find empathy — to make personal something I’ve only experienced vicariously. I want my understanding of the sacrifice of those who died to be more nuanced and respectful than the often-overblown narrative that makes everyone a “hero,” but I’m left painfully aware of the inadequacy of my own experience to truly help me empathize with the pride, heartache, love, and guilt experienced by those who have been touched more personally by loss in these wars. Even knowing how to acknowledge the day is troubling. Saying “Happy Memorial Day” is like telling someone at a funeral that it’s great to see them, but to offer a more personal acknowledgement of grief or condolence can feel as if I’m appropriating an experience from which I’m remote.

And yet, my connection to Memorial Day is not entirely remote. As an American, those who died in America’s modern wars died at least partly in my name. So much of the American conception of Memorial Day has been shaped by the experience of wars of necessity — the most memorable Memorial Day speeches hearken back to the experience of the Civil War or World War II — that Americans seem compelled to use the same rhetoric to understand the sacrifices made in wars of choice. It’s a poor fit that lends itself either to the cynicism of the Vietnam era or the hyperbole of today.

The fact that America’s modern wars have largely been wars of choice does not mean that the choice to fight them was bad — or good. Wars of necessity tend to have clearly defined goals and a stark moral purpose. They are often about national survival. Wars of choice, on the other hand, are fought to achieve a limited policy goal, which has a political value that limits the degree of effort and sacrifice appropriate to its achievement. In World War II, America re-ordered its economy and society to support the war effort. As Sarah Kreps describes in her excellent book, Taxing Wars, modern wars have not been deemed worth the cost even of a significant tax increase. The idea of a war limited by its political cost is nothing new: Clausewitz wrote that wars are fought for an object, and when the cost of war exceeds the value of the object, it will likely conclude. But such instrumental use of violence sits uneasily alongside the soaring rhetoric of “the grand public motive to which [the fallen] gave up their life.”

Owning America’s Choices

As a citizen and a voter, I may best give meaning to the deaths of those who have been killed in fighting America’s wars of choice by owning my responsibility for those choices and examining the appropriate cost. To acknowledge that those who died fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria died in support of a set of specific policy preferences in the region, rather than to “defend freedom,” does not debase the true heroism exhibited by some, nor the magnitude of the sacrifice experienced by all who died and those who love them. But it does require me to confront honestly whether or not I believe those policy preferences to be worth the price in shattered lives, and, if so, how many lives is too many. It also requires an acknowledgement of all the costs that come with the choice to fight — including America’s responsibility to those Afghans and Iraqis who risked their safety and that of their families to support us.

As a scholar of war and peace, it is relatively easy for me to accept that war and force are among the options available to states to achieve their political aims. As a citizen and a veteran, it is much harder to process the fact that my policy preferences have real consequences. No matter how comforting it may be to invoke high-minded ideals to justify the deaths that result from America’s modern wars, to do so is only to put a new label on what Wilfred Owen called “the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/pro patria mori.” (The Latin is a quote from the Roman poet Horace, meaning, “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.”) The sober policy debate that ought to result from such self-examination may not be the stuff of inspiring Memorial Day speeches. But it is in keeping with the heartfelt debt of apology that Truscott knew was owed to those who had died under his command. And it is a more honest way for me to honor the sacrifice of those who have died than trying to remember something I have never known.



Doyle Hodges is the chief publishing officer of War on the Rocks and executive editor of the Texas National Security Review.

Image: American Battle Monuments Commission