The meaning of ‘memorial’

May 25, 2014 

COL. AVERY CHENOWETHA somber burial ceremony is repeated almost daily at veterans cemeteries throughout the nation in tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in defense of our liberty and way of life. A Marine rifle party fires a three-volley salute for the deceased just buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The other side of the human psyche that balances joy, love, achievement and glory is that of pain, suffering, remorse and mourning. The latter are those emotions that are stirred when we remember and honor those who have gone before us and who have died in defending us: those killed in war.

Their legacy to us is best expressed in a line from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Let us die to make men free.”

Memorials abound, most to honor great personages like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., and in other countries, kings, queens and national heroes. People who have shaped history and to whom we all will forever owe our great debts of gratitude.

War memorials are those to victory or to the multitudes of brave souls who gave their lives so that we, the living, can enjoy the liberties for which they fought and died to preserve. So, it is to the latter whom we pause to honor this Memorial Day: American soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen -- men and women. If not their names, their memories, have been added to the pantheon of the nation’s honored.

The immortal words that English-American patriot, Thomas Paine, so poignantly penned during the American Revolution are pertinent to us today: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. All those whom we venerate on Memorial Days were neither summer soldiers nor sunshine patriots; they fought, bled and died for the greater cause of the nation and of its own progeny -- we -- who now live in the freedom they gave their lives to perpetuate.”

This Memorial Day

Of the many legends of its origin, perhaps the best is that of the Southern women of Shiloh, Tennessee, who after that horrendous 1862 battle (and Confederate victory), attended to some of the thousands who lay dead on the battlefield -- including the Yankees -- and gave them decent Christian burials. They followed that with a memorial ceremony that has, in essence, come down to our day.

So, on this venerated day in 2014, we Americans will again pay tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives for ours. Uniquely, many will freshly grieve for loved ones recently lost in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, in Benghazi, and even in the dastardly 9/11 Muslim terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania. Those innocents who perished there were all heroes to those they left behind; many civilians, firefighters, police and rescue workers tried to save the lives of others and in so doing forfeited their own.

Thus all 3,000 who died there in this new, asymmetrical 21st Century warfare of terrorism -- although victims -- are as much casualties of war as any. The memory of their deaths remains forever enshrined in their names engraved on the low commemorative wall squaring the original site where the Twin Towers, inside of which they were entrapped, collapsed in fire rubble, and ashes upon them.

Several decades prior to that, the Vietnam War Memorial had been created on the Mall of the nation’s Capital. Into that long black granite wall are engraved all 58,209 names of our fighting men who gave their lives in that unsuccessful 10-year struggle to keep South Vietnam free from communist domination. This memorial is not a glorious one but is a monumental epitaph sadly commemorating defeat -- America’s first defeat in any war. That in no way diminishes the contributions of both survivors and those deceased now honored by their names displayed for posterity.

In countless cemeteries here and abroad, our veterans who served and died are properly commemorated: Arlington National Cemetery, Quantico National Cemetery, Andersonville National Cemetery and others throughout this country. Our former ally, France, has created a number of cemeteries where thousands of Americans lay in marked graves in the blood-soaked soil on which they selflessly laid down their lives -- twice in the 20th Century alone -- to free France from German aggression. In World War I, the U.S. Army fought in France only in the last six months of 1918, yet suffered 53,000 killed in that short time; in World War II, the U.S. lost perhaps another 100,000 freeing France and defeating Germany. Thus, America fully repaid the Marquis de Lafayette, who was so instrumental in bringing France to the aid of the American Revolution. In that final battle at Yorktown, France’s naval fleet interdicted that of the British, and Lafayette’s army joined Washington’s in that final battle that won the war for the Continentals and ended British rule.

Heroes all?

Those valiant dead whose names are enshrined on tombstones in cemeteries, on the walls of memorials, or merely in the hearts and memories of loved ones, are all heroes -- heroes to those they left behind. Very few survivors know how they died, but one thing can be certain, whether they died suddenly, unaware or furiously in the face of the enemy, they all had extraordinary courage, and they died the deaths of heroes. And that should never be forgotten.

Up until recently the word “hero” described a person who committed an extraordinary act of heroism in battle -- throwing oneself onto a hand grenade to absorb the blow and save those around him, or charging fiercely into the fire of the enemy and overcoming him -- the sorts of heroism that win medals. We might add, too, our wounded warriors whose lives have been severely impaired by their injuries and will never be the same as before.

However, what we do not know and can only assume happened in those unrecorded moments in battle was that a wounded buddy was consoled in his last moments or he risked his own life to save that of another. Such unknown feats of heroism are left to heaven. Probably far more incidents like these occurred than those of overt valor. Consequently, those who have lost kin in wars need to take comfort that the last moments of their dearly departed were less in pain and anguish than in momentary victory -- as the Apostle Paul questioned: “Death, where is thy sting?” And, of those who were believers, let us be assured that they now rest in the arms of their savior.

No statement, though, is quite as appropriate nor as eloquent as that of the final lines of President Lincoln’s short “Gettysburg Address” following that cataclysmic three-day but pivotal battle in 1863. They are in themselves the epitome of all Memorial Days:

“... that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Retired Col. H. Avery Chenoweth is a three-war veteran retired in Perry and author of “Art of War and Semper Fi: The Illustrated History of the Marine Corps,” published by Barnes & Noble. His latest, “A Guidebook for ‘Z’ Generation Grads,” is available on amazon.com.

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