Mystic Chords of Memory
From America's Founding, to the sacrifices of her sons and daughters, we remember.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

Unfortunately, the Bush administration bears some of the responsibility for our failure to honor the heroes and war dead of Iraq and Afghanistan. The president has publicly presented the two posthumous Medals of Honor that have been awarded for Iraq and Afghanistan, but has otherwise passed up opportunities to present Distinguished Service Crosses, Navy Crosses, or Silver Stars. This is part of the administration’s strategy to avoid public mention of the war, an approach that is is self-defeating on so many levels.

There are no doubt sound political reasons for the president to avoid the topic of the war, but the decision to do so permits the old Vietnam narrative of the American solider as victim to roam freely in the minds of Americans. Anyone who doubts the degree to which this view of the American soldier has become institutionalized in American culture should visit the Vietnam War Memorial. Instead of evoking respect for the honored dead, this structure induces on the one hand, pity for those whose names appear on the wall, and on the other, relief on the part of those who, for whatever reason, did not serve.

In a Memorial Day address I delivered ten years ago at Newport City Hall, I asked rhetorically, why are such men as John Bobo and Paul Ray Smith willing to fight and die? I observed that in his book, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, Glen Gray provided one answer: “Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.”

It is my own experience that Gray is right about what men think about in the heat of combat: the impact of our actions on our comrades always looms large in our minds. As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in his Memorial Day address of 1884, “In the great democracy of self-devotion private and general stand side by side.”

But while the individual soldier may focus on the particulars of combat, Memorial Day permits us to enlarge the individual soldier’s view, giving broader meaning to the sacrifice that was accepted of some but offered by all, not only acknowledging and remembering the sacrifice, but validating it.

In the history of the world, many good soldiers have died bravely and honorably for bad or unjust causes. Americans are fortunate in that we have been given a way of avoiding this situation by linking the sacrifice of our soldiers to the meaning of the nation. At the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln fleshed out the understanding of what he called in his First Inaugural Address, the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.”

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address gives universal meaning to the particular deaths that occurred on that hallowed ground, thus allowing us to understand Memorial Day in the light of the Fourth of July, to comprehend the honorable end of the soldiers in the light of the glorious beginning and purpose of the nation. The deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg, of those who died during the Civil War as a whole, and indeed of those who have fallen in all the wars of America, are validated by reference to the nation and its founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

Some will object, claiming that linking Memorial Day and Independence Day glorifies war and trivializes individual loss and the end of youth and joy. How can the loved ones of a fallen soldier ever recover from such a loss? I corresponded with the mother of one of my Marines who died in Vietnam for some time after his death. He was an only child and her inconsolable pain and grief put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Epitaphs of the War, verse IV, “An Only Son”:

I have slain none but my mother, She
(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.

Kipling too, lost his only son in World War I.

But as Holmes said in 1884, “[G]rief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope and will.”

By all means, have a hot dog or a hamburger this weekend. If you’re close to a beach or a lake, take advantage of the nice weather and go. But on Memorial Day, take some time to remember the John Bobos and the Paul Ray Smiths who died to make your weekend possible.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, and is the editor of Orbis. He is a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.