The wisdom of wars can be debated on any day, and this column has not hesitated to question the thinking — or, to be more precise, the lack of thinking — that has led the United States to the current quagmire in Iraq.
But on Memorial Day, it is well to pause from the debate to remember those whose lives have been lost, not merely to the fool’s mission of the contemporary moment but to all those battles – noble and ignoble – that have claimed the sons and daughters of this and every land.
After the bloodiest and most divisive of America’s wars, the poet Walt Whitman offered a dirge for two soldiers of the opposing armies — Civil War veterans, buried side by side. His poem is an apt reminder that, when the fighting is done, those who warred against one another often find themselves in the same place. It is appropriate that we should garland each grave, understanding on this day above all others that wars are conceived by presidents and prime ministers, not soldiers.
It is appropriate, as well, and perhaps a bit soothing, to recall Whitman’s wise words:
The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finish’d Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.
Lo, the moon ascending,
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
Immense and silent moon.
I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-key’d bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they are flooding,
As with voices and with tears.
I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.
For the son is brought with the father,
(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans son and father dropt together,
And the double grave awaits them.)
And nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o’er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.
In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin’d,
(‘Tis some mother’s large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)
O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.