Note: While watching the several television programs devoted to commemorating Memorial Day this year, I came to the conclusion that many in the media confuse this day with Veterans Day, which is in November and recognizes the service of all United States veterans.
Memorial Day is, at its core, about lives never fully lived, marriages never made, children never born, and dreams never fulfilled. It is about the approximately one million men and women who have died in defense of the United States since 1775, frozen forever in time at the moment of the sacrifice they made to preserve the basic freedoms and liberties that most Americans take for granted. It is about the ones who did not come back, not about those who did, and to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude. We express that appreciation on Veterans Day.
Since this is the Memorial Day Weekend, in order to focus on what we celebrate at this time, I offer the following Memorial Day tribute.
Brigid Schulte, writing in the Washington Post, penned an article entitled “Requiem for Fallen Fighters” that speaks to this point.
She writes: “On the first Monday of every month, the Rev. Robert H. Malm stands before his congregation at a special service and reads the name and rank of every U.S. serviceman or woman who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan the previous month.
“Every week, the names of the fallen are published in the church bulletin. Every Sunday, the week’s death toll is read from the pulpit. Oct. 8: 18 dead. Oct. 15: 31 dead. Oct. 22: 24 dead.”
Schulte continues: “That with the United States deeply divided by the war and its costs; Grace Episcopal Church’s actions could be seen as controversial – political even.
“But to Malm, the monthly requiem is not about politics. It’s not about being for or against the war…. ‘These people need to be remembered,’ Malm said in an interview in his rectory office. ‘The names are offered as prayers,’ he explained. ‘And prayer is hard to debate… This war is so confusing, and most of us live in denial. It’s easier to go on our merry way, to take care of the economy, our personal needs,’ he said. ‘But we all need to have an awareness of this war. And its costs.’
“Those who have died are strangers to him. Not one was a member of the parish. And yet, Malm said, the experience of intoning each of their names is profound.
“The idea for the requiem came a few years ago from parishioner Mike Hix, a retired Army colonel who served two combat tours in Vietnam as a young man. He and his wife had traveled to New York one weekend and attended services at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan, which was founded in 1865 at the close of the Civil War as a memorial to the soldiers who died in that conflict.
“Hix said he sat transfixed as the rector read the names of the young men and women who had died that week. ‘As they read those names, it just brought me to tears and my wife as well,’ he said. ‘It was so powerful’
“Hix, perhaps more than most, knows that a casualty list is more than a collection of names. ‘These are real people, with real names.’ Hix said.
“Malm and Hix keep their personal views on the war to themselves. But the constant stream of names coming before Malm has had him meditating on the war’s costs. What does he think about as he reads the latest list of fatalities? ‘The profound failure of war,’ he said. ‘What has it ever ultimately achieved?’
“As the list of 105 names of those killed in October for the Monday requiem was readied, Malm sighed. ‘It’s just so sad.’”
As recent as a generation ago, it was still fashionable around Memorial Day to hear or to recite a poem written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician in the Canadian Army. After he witnessed the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, only twenty-two years old, he wrote these words:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our places; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands, we throw
The Torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Most schoolchildren today have never heard those lines. They do not know to what it is that those words refer. They cannot tell you the location of Flanders fields. At least, part of the reason could be that with the wars since Flanders fields, the words sound a bit passé and overly emotional, even a bit ominous – “If ye break faith with us who die . . .”
On a Saturday morning in November 1918, two days before the Armistice was declared, a Georgia educator named Moina Michael was reading a magazine that featured McCrae’s poem. She had read the poem many times before, but was transfixed by the words: “To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” At that moment, Moina Michael made a personal pledge to “keep the faith” and vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders fields not only as a sign of remembrance, but also as an emblem for “keeping the faith with all who died.”
Compelled to make a note of this pledge, she hastily scribbled down a poem on the back of an envelope entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith.” Here are her words:
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies T
hat blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders fields.
To keep the faith with all who died and to teach the lessons that they have wrought should be our pledge as well. As Rudyard Kipling reminds us: “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget – lest we forget!”
“They, and we, are the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor, who waged war so that we might know peace, who braved hardship so that we might know opportunity, who paid the ultimate price so that we might know freedom.” –Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States