A few miles outside my hometown of Cambridge, England, there is a well-manicured field on the far outskirts of a handsome little village named Madingley. In that field there sit a few thousand crosses, and, beneath them, the remains of a few thousand American men.
I write “remains” reflexively — evidently, we English speakers have decided to use this euphemism to indicate that time has passed and that it has taken the flesh with it — but in this case it is an especially apposite word, for many of those buried at Madingley were incomplete long before they were interred. Among other things, this is a graveyard for the men who did not come back intact. At the Casablanca Conference of 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt came to an agreement: The Royal Air Force would take care of the nighttime sorties over Germany and beyond; the Americans would fly when it was light. In retrospect, this was a good deal for the Brits. So ugly were the daytime fights that it was not uncommon for deceased rear-gunners to be “hosed” rather than pulled out of their positions when — nay, if — their aircraft returned. In addition to the buried, there are memorials for the 5,125 airmen whose bodies were never found.
One sees all sorts of names at Madingley — there are Abbots, Abernathys, Aguirres, and Airoldis; Bakers, Buchanans, Baczeks, and Backhauses; Caputos, Carlsons, Callahans, and Cafferatas — and one cannot help but consider how improbable it is that they all ended up here, in some corner of a foreign field. These were boys from all over the United States — from New York, California, Wyoming, and Colorado — the sons of parents who, at various points in time, had come to America from all over the world. What is it that had compelled them to travel to this faraway place, thousands of miles from home, to face fear, injury, and death? What is it that makes any man lay his life down for others in an alien time zone?
I hail from a family of military veterans but I am not one myself, and in consequence I shall not attempt to answer this question. What I will do, though, is express my gratitude for those who have. As a child I was taken to Madingley often by my father, the better to impress upon me that all that I had so nonchalantly taken for granted was the product of hard choices that had been made before I was born. Rarely in human history has the venerable question, “If not us, who?” been answered as emphatically as it was between 1939 and 1945. Rarely, too, were the consequences of that answer so colossal. It does not take an imagination as fertile as Philip K. Dick’s to conceive what the world might look like without the work of the Abbots, the Abernathys, the Aguirres, the Airoldis, and all of their unblenching compatriots. That such conceptions are today limited to the realm of science fiction is the ultimate testament to those men.
It is easy to forget the dead, and tempting, too, to caricature those whom posterity has lazily deemed “heroes.” But if civilization is indeed a compact between the future and the past, such enticements must always be resisted. When done right, Memorial Day serves as an opportunity to lift the mask and unveil the price tag, thereby acknowledging the unpleasant truth that peace and ordered liberty are not humanity’s natural mode but the legacy of vigilance and heartbreak. At Lexington, at Gettysburg, at Saint-Mihiel, and at Aachen, the men who took up arms and charged forward into the fray issued forth a collective, timeless “no.” Here, they insisted, were the lines that would not be crossed; these were the iniquities that would not be tolerated; theirs were the torches that would not be extinguished without a fight. If we are to avoid a repeat of the mistakes that forced them into their defensive pose, they must never leave our thoughts for too long.
When, on December 7, 1943, the University of Cambridge donated the land at Madingley, its intentions were distressingly prosaic. Casualties sustained during flights from nearby airfields were growing rapidly in number, and the local authorities had no idea what to do with the remains. 73 years later, the terrain has become hallowed. At the far end of the graveyards, there is a small chapel, its door always open. “They knew not the hour, the day, nor the manner of their passing,” an inscription reads, but “when far from home they were called to join that heroic band of airmen who had gone before.” Thank goodness they answered that call. All shame on us should we ever forget it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.