May 29, 2006

Honoring the War Dead

The great battle of Serbian history is the defeat of King Lazar by the Ottomans at Kosovo Polje (Crows’ Field) in 1389. Although a crushing defeat, the battle has become the emblem of Serbian national pride.

When I was young, we Americans boasted that we had never lost a war. Although an exaggeration when it comes to the War of 1812, and patently untrue for the South, whose defeat in the Civil War is as much a regional icon as Kosovo Polje is a national one for the Serbs.

After Vietnam, of course, no one can say we never lost a war. Nor can it be said that all our wars have been just or wise.

It’s Memorial Day, and we acknowledge our war dead, and those of earlier generations. The always-interesting Christopher Hitchens ruminates on how best and worst to remember these dead. The rhetoric of high ideals and victory is fine, to a point. War freed the nation from England’s king, freed the slaves, and destroyed Hitler. In all our wars, brave men lost life and limb for their country, their honor, and their buddies, the latter being the great motivator in the heat of battle.

War, however, is also carnage, and never lacks its atrocities and (gruesome euphemism) “collateral damage.” Many of us--our Vice President and me included--managed to avoid (not evade) service in Vietnam, and some, including me, opposed the war effort, which in retrospect appears to have been botched from the start but in the light of the subsequent horrors of Southeast Asian communism and the outflow of refugees from which we have, ironically, profited, to have been a righteous cause.

Is it then hypocrisy for us to honor the war dead? I think not, if we do so honestly and soberly. We honor the Founders, who were better men than we, even if some were slaveholders, some land speculators, and some philanderers. We honor firefighters, even if most of us have never rushed into an inferno to save a stranger. We honor the discoverers, even if we ourselves get seasick, and the great composers even if we sing flat.

So it is that even those of us who have not served in the military and those who took positions that history now condemns, can and should honor all the war dead.

And whether or not all our wars were victorious, and in spite of the vices which infected all our war efforts, we can honor the stoicism, the heroism, and the obedience with which our compatriots’ lives were cut short in war. We should do so soberly, without rhetorical excess, and with a solemn recognition that war may sometimes be unavoidable or necessary, but always, War is Hell.

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