Memorial Day 2008

Today is once again Memorial Day. On this day in the past I have posted photo montages of, for example, the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC and link roundups, as I did last year. This year, I thought I’d simply post a link to a list maintained by the Department of Veteran Affairs of the number of Americans who have died in every war fought thus far in this nation’s history, excluding the current actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those figures can be found here.

As we go about our business today, some of us going to cemeteries, others having barbecues, going to baseball games, or shopping, among the myriad activities that we take on our days off, it is hard to realize that we are a nation at war because unlike virtually all the major wars of our history we are in a war that doesn’t even ask a pretense of civilian sacrifice. Only our soldiers and their families sacrifice, too many of them paying the ultimate price, and they are volunteers all. Personally, on Memorial Day, I like to cite the speech by Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., commander of the Allied Fifth Army in Italy, on May 30, 1945 as the war in Europe had just ended and the war in the Pacific was still raging. He was dedicating a cemetery. Here is an account of his speech:

But May 30, 1945 was different. “Truscott,” he said, “was someone special.” The general had swallowed carbolic acid as a child, which gave his voice a gravelly baritone that, said Mauldin, “made other strong men quail.” Unlike Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., a publicity hound whose trips to the front were elaborately staged photo-ops, Truscott shared in the dangers of combat, often going over maps on the hood of his jeep with company commanders as enemy fire whizzed around him. “He could have eaten a ham like Patton for breakfast any morning,” said Mauldin, “and picked his teeth with the man’s pearl-handed pistols.”

Mauldin’s account of Gen. Truscott’s speech at Nettuno is the best record we have of that day. He recalled the general taking the stand and then turning his back on the audience in order to address the buried corpses arrayed behind him. “It was the most moving gesture I ever saw,” Mauldin said.

In his heavy rasp, Truscott told the dead men that he was sorry for what he had done. He said that leaders all tell themselves that deaths in war aren’t their fault, that such carnage is inevitable. Deep down, though, if they’re honest with themselves, he said, commanders and politicians know it’s not true. Truscott admitted he had made mistakes, perhaps many.

Then he asked the dead to forgive him. He was requesting the impossible, he knew, but he needed to ask anyway.

Finally, Truscott debunked the idea that there was glory in dying for one’s country. He saw nothing glorious about men in their teens and twenties getting killed, he said. He then promised the men buried at Nettuno that if he ever ran into anybody who spoke of the glorious war dead, he would “straighten them out.” “It is the least I can do,” he concluded.

Would that we had such leaders as Lucian Truscott this Memorial Day.

Would indeed. Sadly, we do not.

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