Remembering the heroes, victims
ON MEMORIAL DAY, a grateful nation remembers its war dead, but that somehow gets it backward. Those who have died in America’s wars are, more than any other distinct group, the creators of the nation. When citizens go willingly to their deaths for a civic cause, the cause is vindicated — if by nothing else. Public feelings of grief and loss become a source of living cohesion, which is the ground of patriotism. It is fitting that Memorial Day should have taken its place on the American calendar after the Civil War, since it was in that conflict that this principle was first established with power.
The Civil War began, on the northern side, as a war for union, not abolition of slavery. By the second year of the war, the sheer scale of death forced a change in its aim. Shiloh, in April 1862, saw 25,000 casualties. In July, at Bull Run, there were 20,000. Antietam, in September, was the bloodiest day in American history, with 24,000 casualties in 12 hours. A week later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Yale historian Harry Stout explains why: “By Lincoln’s calculation, the killing must continue on ever grander scales. But for that to succeed, the people must be persuaded to shed blood without reservation. This, in turn, required a moral certitude that the killing was just.’’ Mere 19th-century nationalism — “Union’’ — was not yet enough. For Americans, the “nation’’ was becoming sacred, but it was not yet that sacred. “Only emancipation — Lincoln’s last card — would provide such certitude,’’ Stout writes.
In the end, something like 700,000 Americans died in that war, North and South. An equivalent in population today would approach 7 million. It is much remarked that after the Civil War, and the firm establishment of “Union,’’ the “United States’’ went from being a plural noun to a singular one, but that transition to the nation we know was accomplished by the dead — who eventually included Lincoln himself.
There are deep strains of the human condition here, something about the way living persons adjust to war’s undeniable manifestation of mortality. But the valorizing of the heroes is only half the story. After World War I, Europe became as obsessively attentive to the “fallen’’ as the United States had been after its Civil War. The millions of young men who died on the Western Front and other battlefields were not only mourned, but missed. The mantle of international dominance crossed the Atlantic to America in the mid-20th century in part because most of a generation of Old World leaders was cut down in the mud — a continental amputation. A memorial day, in that context, requires remembrance of the world that might have been. Imagine Europe even today if those nearly 10 million — so brave, so selfless — had not been lost.
Indeed, the most fitting tribute that can be paid to those who made the ultimate sacrifice is a full reckoning with what that sacrifice actually cost — not just the fallen and their families, but the larger community that was deprived of the social contributions they would otherwise have made.
Perhaps war’s most unsung casualty, in that sense, is the future, which is by definition demeaned by the absence of the heroes. Yet when survivors fill in for those who are gone, they come more fully into responsibility for the commonwealth. The dead create the nation also by being gone.
For all these reasons, remembering is not enough. Beneath the beauty of the lilies lies the ugliness of war. For the act of memorializing to be truly honorable, that harsh reality must be kept central. The human longing for an end to war must be revivified generation in and generation out — not just as a dream, but as a mandate. The waste, futility, and cruelty of war must focus our perceptions of it.
Just because we necessarily make something noble of war, by thinking gratefully of those who served to the point of death, does not remove the indictment of what killed them. War is a crime. Among its victims are its heroes. Yet in the modern era, they have been vastly outnumbered by men, women, and children for whom war was only catastrophic, in no way valorous. Memorial Day belongs to that legion of the dead also.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.