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May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

By: Bernard Chazelle

At first we may not feel a visceral connection to those somber gravesides or the people standing there. But their loss is ours, and always will be. That is the meaning of Memorial Day.

No. Their loss is not ours. Sorry, New York Times editor, but the loss of Cindy Sheehan's son is not yours: it is hers.

No. The meaning of Memorial Day is not the sharing of loss. If Memorial Day had any meaning, we'd been spending it rolling a huge boulder up the hill, Sisyphus-like, let it roll down, and repeat till we drop. It would be painful and pointless, much like the wars to which we send our young to die.

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

Wilfred Owen

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at May 25, 2009 04:42 PM

No. Their loss is not ours.

Hey, I paid for those deaths!

Posted by: SteveB at May 25, 2009 06:09 PM

There is no way to imagine the horror of loss of someone's child and so yes, one can not share in that loss.

"In others the loss has become a very old wound, the pain still lingering in memory even though the scar has faded."

The wound never gets old. There are always reminders. The pain always lingers and the scar never fades. It is extremely tender. One only tries to learn to live with it all.

Today, I want to remember all the 18 yrs old
who are no more
because of the insanity of war
and whose families' losses are irreplaceable.

I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me:
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down:
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.
Sidney Keyes (1922-1943)

No drums they wished, whose thoughts were tied
To girls and jobs and mother,
Who rose and drilled and killed and died
Because they saw no other,
Who died without the hero's throb,
And if they trembled, hid it,
Who did not fancy much their job,
But thought it best, and did it.
Michael Thwaites (1915-2005)

ps For anyone interested in war poetry...
"Best of Second World War Poetry"

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 25, 2009 06:25 PM

SteveB: EXACTLY!!! Don't forget my share!

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 25, 2009 06:26 PM

Thomas Merton, the contemplative monk, once wrote an anti-war poem, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces” — about Adolph Eichmann and the Holocaust that ends with Eichmann addressing the reader: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”

Merton wasn’t finished with Eichmann or the implications of the death machine such bureaucrats served. In an essay published in Raids on the Unspeakable, Merton had this to say:

"The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. … No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command."


And for anyone interested in war poetry who hasn't read Paul Fussell's 'The Great War & Modern Memory,' it is magnificent.

Posted by: Oarwell at May 25, 2009 06:58 PM

"The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing"

One could easily substitute say, Truman, in that passage and the message loses none of its force. Disturbing.

Posted by: Coldtype at May 25, 2009 08:27 PM

Beautiful. I guess Owen made beautiful seem easy. My favorite antiwar poem is his Parable of the Young Man and the Old.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 25, 2009 08:27 PM


Thomas Merton was right that there will always be some "sane" guy in a uniform who will do ANYTHING. But i think the insane ones in uniform are pretty scary too.

What was surprising to me about Merton was his understanding of power. I thought monks lived apart from the world because they didn't like worldy matters; Merton certainly had a very deep understanding of what he didn't like.

I once really liked Fussell's book too, though i haven't read it in a long time. WWI was obviously terrible. That other Orwell, Eric Blair, thought WWI so terrible that he didn't object to bombing civilian populations, at least for a time, because he hoped people wouldn't put up with war if they were getting killed too, instead of a whole generation of boys being sacrificed while life went on behind the lines. It obviously didn't work out that way. Merton wouldn't have made Blair's moral mistake.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 25, 2009 09:52 PM

"Was it for this the clay grew tall?"

Posted by: Rosemary Molloy at May 26, 2009 05:48 AM

Accounting 101
Debits = Assets
Losses = Gains
Lives = Dollars
"War is a racket. . .the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."--Smedley Butler
So they didn't die in vain and they didn't die to keep us safe, they died so that some could get rich, that others would keep their nice "defense" and political jobs and that a few would even get paid to write about the concocted meaning of it all.

Posted by: Don Bacon at May 26, 2009 11:20 AM