On Memorial Day
What We Owe to the Fallen,
and to Those Now Serving
In American military cemeteries all over the world, seemingly
endless rows of whitened grave markers stand largely unvisited
and in silence. The gardeners tend the lawns, one section at a
time. Even at the famous sites, tourism is inconstant. Sunsets
and dawns, winter nights, softly falling snow, and gorgeous
summer mornings mainly find the graves and those who lie within
them protected in eternal tranquility. Now and then a visitor
linked by love, blood, or both will come to make that connection
with the dead that only love can sustain.
Sometimes you see them, quiet in some neglected corner beneath
the trees or on a field above the sea, but numbers and time make
this the exception. If not completely forgotten, the vast ranks
of Civil War dead are now primarily the object of genealogy and
historians, as the fathers and mothers, women, children, and
brothers who loved them are now long gone. As it is for everyone
else it is for the dead of all the wars, and neither
proclamations nor holidays nor children innocently placing flags
can cure it.
Nonetheless, a universal connection links every living American
with those who have fallen or will fall in American wars and
overrides the lapses in sustaining and honoring their memories.
We are and shall be connected to them by debt and obligation.
Though if by and large we ignore the debt we owe to those who
fell at Saratoga, Antietam, the Marne, the Pointe du Hoc, and a
thousand other places and more, our lives and everything we value
are the ledger in which it is indelibly recorded. And even if we
fail in the obligation, it is clear and it remains.
What do we owe soldiers on the battlefields of the present or
– do not doubt it – the future? How does one honor
the inexpressibly difficult decision to walk toward annihilation,
in some instances guaranteed, for the sake of the imperfect
strategies of war, their confused execution, and their uncertain
result? What can we offer the soldiers who will not know the
outcome of their struggle, or ever again see those left behind?
We owe them a decision to go to war ratified unambiguously by the
American people through their constitutional and republican
institutions. Except where instantaneous response is necessitated
by a clear and present danger, this means a declaration of war
issued by a Congress that will fully support its own carefully
determined decision and those it sends to carry it out –
nothing less, nothing hedged, nothing ducked.
This requires in turn the kind of extraordinary, penetrating
debate that can occur only among those wise enough to understand
mortality and weigh it against principles that cannot be left
undefended. It requires a president who can argue for his
decision not merely with eloquence but substantively and
tenaciously – guided only by the long-term interests of the
United States, not fatuous slogans, political imperatives, and
easily impeachable ideological notions of the right, left, or
Look ahead, not back. If we commit soldiers to battle, we must
support them unstintingly. There are many ways to pay for war:
taxing, borrowing, cutting other expenditures, sharing the burden
with allies, adjusting war aims, and starving the means to fight.
The only unacceptable one is the last. If the general population
must do with less, so be it, for the problem is only imagined.
Better than feckless politicians who think it lives by bread
alone, the American people has always known that its enlisted
sacrifices are hardly commensurate with those of the maimed and
A soldier's destiny must rest, rather than with careerists, in
the hands of grave and responsible officials and commanders,
those who experience what Churchill called the statesman's
stress of soul. He should never have to die for the sake
of an academic theory once the doctoral thesis of an Ivy League
idealist working his way up through the bureaucracies and think
And yet the commander who does not labor to educate himself
unceasingly is likely no better than his opposite number in the
seminar room. Above all, he must have a genius for war, an
inherent quality that cannot be manufactured and is usually
crowded out by that part of the brain that makes for a brilliant
career, and punished by the higher ranks for having what they do
not. Such people deserve the protection and promotion that mostly
they do not receive, for when they do they become Grant,
Churchill, Marshall, Eisenhower, and Patton.
The debt we owe, and in regard to which we are at present deeply
in arrears, may be difficult to pay but it is easy to see. To
grasp its conspicuous clarity one need only walk among the graves
and pause to give proper thought to even just one life among the
many. Read slowly the name, the dates, the place where everything
came to an end.
I have seen lonely people of advancing age, yet as constant as
angels, keeping faith to those they loved who fell in wars that
current generations, not having known them, cannot even forget.
The sight of them moving hesitantly among the tablets and crosses
is enough to break your heart. Let that break be the father to a
profound resolution to fulfill our obligation to the endless
chain of the mourning and the dead. Shall we not sacrifice where
required? Shall we not prove more responsible, courageous,
honest, and assiduous? Shall we not illuminate our decisions with
the light that comes from the stress of soul, and ever
keep faith with the fallen by embracing the soldiers who fight in
our name? The answer must be that we