Memorial Sunday Thoughts

The Memorial Day weekend betokens the promises of summer. We are all exhausted; exhausted by the long grueling New England winter; exhausted by a culture of work that despite its rhetoric despises and works against the interests of an effective work-life balance; exhausted by low paying and therefore the need for often multiple jobs. Our kids are exhausted by an outdated culture of teaching to tests and the consequent parental anxiety that results in overscheduling. The three-day Memorial Day Weekend is a godsend for many of us, and so I trust that families and friends will find time for well needed recreation.

However, the three-day weekend commemorates a more solemn theme; which is an invitation to a grateful nation to honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

After 20 years of involvement in continual low level conflict in the Middle East sanctioned by a seeming permanent State of Emergency, we face the risk of growing even more cynical about of our national global military strategy, or the seeming lack thereof.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War Joseph Laconte writing about the tenacity and courage of the ordinary British soldiers who endured the unspeakable horrors in the trenches of the Great War, comments:

Historians still debate the ultimate achievement of these soldiers, and the causes for which they fought. Were they merely fodder for a vast and merciless military machine that ravaged Europe to no good end? Or did they play a vital role in halting ….. aggression and preventing the dominance of a brutal and oppressive juggernaut over the Continent?

In this section of the book, Laconte is locating the origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision for the Hobbits and the role they played in his seminal Lord of the Rings epic. Tolkien the soldier, lived among, and fought alongside, very ordinary men plucked from the shires and towns of the British Isles. Laconte continues:

Thus the “small people” who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes in Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work.

Joseph Leconte

Laconte’s words could equally be applied to the men who made up the armies of the American Civil War; men plucked from the farms and towns of a nation barely 90 years old. It is said that there is no more brutal conflict than when fellow citizens – brothers, cousins, fathers and uncles take up arms against one another. As the armies of the Civil War crossed and re-crossed each other in what must at the time have seemed an endless game of tug-of-war for territory and advantage, it was also the women, the children, and the old men who remained at home who bore the brunt of this savage conflict. The American Civil War was the first mechanized war of the modern era. It presaged the true horror of a fully mechanized conflict between industrialized nations in the First World War, still rightly referred to as the Great War.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. He commented that:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.

General John A. Logan

Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was first known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. [1]

In 2019, the commemoration of the nation’s fallen in war evokes complex feelings. The great national emergencies of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War make it easy to feel proud of our experience of war. Both wars were fought in pursuit of a noble cause. However, the Vietnam War together with today’s continuous low level conflict in the Middle East evoke more ambivalent feelings in us about the merits of war.

Today, Memorial Day reminds us of a largely hidden veteran presence among us; a population of minds and bodies scarred by the trauma of war; war no longer as an epic struggle involving the whole nation, but of war as an interminable state of low level conflict the brunt of which is born by members of racially and economically deprived sections of society.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, And A Great War, Joseph Laconte seeks to uncover the sources of the hugely imaginative writings of J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S Lewis. Both men enjoyed a strong friendship forged by their common experience in the First World War. Their friendship grew out of a mutual need to take the memory of the horror of their experience of war and sublimate it into imaginative works of fiction that hold in tension the horror of war with the hope for something better. Together, Tolkien and Lewis created a transgenerational rediscovery of faith, friendship, and heroism.

In 1912, Cecil Spring Rice was appointed Ambassador from the Court of St James (Great Britain) to the United States. He was hugely influential in persuading Woodrow Wilson to commit America’s entry into the Great War. In 1918 he was recalled to Britain. Before he left he penned the words to the text that became the hymn I vow to thee my country. Rice’s words were later set by Gustav Holst to the tune Thaxted, a tune taken from the Jupiter Movement of his Planets Suite.

The two verses of the hymn are juxtaposed and give voice to a tension – a tension that also weaves its way in and out of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ writing; a tension we are today still grappling with. Is love of country and love of God one in the same?  Often these two loves are rolled together as if they are one, to love country is to love God and vice versa. But Rice juxtaposes the verses to evoke a tension between two kinds of love.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Cecil Spring Rice

The love that leads men and women to sacrifice their lives in war, while noble is also regrettable and grieves the heart of God. If we could but focus on our love of God, perhaps war as the embodiment of love of country would no longer be a continued reality in our national life.

Nevertheless, we can leave the unanswered questions about the purpose for and end achieved by particular wars. With gratitude we remember those who willingly, yet also with regret, were called upon to give their lives simply because they were unfortunate enough to live in a time when this sacrifice was asked of them. Let us pray that it not be asked of us.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. For the Fallen, Robert Laurence Binyon


[1] Taken form the History.Com

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