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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Memorial Day, and the wars behind it

American cemetery at Normandy. Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission
Some years ago – okay, a lot of years ago – Margaret and I went to Europe, a zip-around trip to France, England and Ireland. It was part vacation, part work, as I did a series of stories on “sister cities” to Rochester, N.Y, where I was working for the Times-Union afternoon paper.

A trip like that spawns a lot of memories, but one that sticks out persistently was near Rennes, France, where we visited a war memorial. I remember it as a large colonnaded building, and when you walked inside, the white marble walls were covered floor to ceiling with the engraved names of the dead.

It was an impressive monument, the kind of place where people default to hushed whispers. We walked around, scanning the names, overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Then I noticed near one wall a low white marble monument best described as an ark, about thigh-high and the dimensions of a coffee table. I walked closer to read the inscription, and discovered that this little box-like thing was the memorial to the dead of World War II. The names on the walls, I realized then, were the dead of World War I. Two massive wars within a generation, the first so devastating that the dead of the second were treated almost as an after-thought.

Few American families have not been touched by war (in our case, the service of relatives, though fortunately no deaths in the modern era). But not like this, where a generation of young men from one geographic region were, for the most part, exterminated over the course of a few years of folly and political hubris.

War is about winning, and the way you win is to kill enough soldiers fast enough on the other side that they give up before your side does. Sometimes they give up quickly; sometimes they don’t. And it is those who died in the process whom we properly focus on today.

We should focus more on why they were there in the first place. I’m at heart a pacifist, though not so beholden to it that I can’t recognize that some wars are necessary. Those have been few and far between. Stopping the expanding Nazi empire was necessary. World War I, with its convoluted politics and Wall Street investments, was not. Korea and Vietnam were also questionable ventures. Afghanistan was a conundrum going in, and I’m still arguing with myself over whether that was a morally defensible action. Iraq certainly was not.

Here on Memorial Day, we think of the dead, and why they died. They are men, mostly, who did the bidding of their political leaders. And as I think of the ruptures in families, and the countless agonies large and small, I think, too, of the people who sent these men and women to their deaths. As I remember the soldiers for their bravery, and for their devotion, I also wrestle with questions about the wisdom of national leaders who, over the years, have reached so cavalierly for a military solution to a political problem.

In the end, I realize, the dead bear more integrity than the living.

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