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.



  1. #1 TB
    May 26, 2008

    A well written article.
    i would agree there is no mention of civilians, or recognition of the enemy dead, and as such it becomes nothing but a nationalistic event.
    The real point should be that war is evil and pointless.

  2. #2 David D
    May 26, 2008

    Thank you–you are the only skeptical/science blog that I am aware of that has made any mention of the holiday today. Yes, was is evil and pointless, but it is an unfortunate part of the human landscape. There may not be any glory in young men and women dying in battle, but I am grateful for their sacrifice–as we should all be.

  3. #3 DLC
    May 26, 2008

    Truscott was no fan of Patton, and neither was Mauldin.
    But, that being said, It’s important to remember that glory is fleeting. No rational person of my acquaintance likes war.
    It’s dirty, bloody, messy and oftentimes displays some of our species’ worst attributes. But sometimes there is no choice, or rather, the consequences of not going to war are worse than those of going to war.
    Having said all that, I don’t want to leave the impression that I am defending the decision to go into Iraq.
    Iraq is one of the situations where going to war was the worse of the two choices.

  4. #4 DLC
    May 26, 2008

    Addendum: re: my comment on Truscott, Mauldin and Patton.
    Patton was a jerk and a headline-grabber. He was also one of the best armor commanders we had. Truscott was under Patton’s command in Sicily, and felt that much of his casualty rate came out of Patton’s desire to beat the British to Messina.

  5. #5 MZW
    May 26, 2008

    Sadly, most take their impressions of Patton from the movie of the same name, and the military advisor to that movie was none other than Omar Bradley (no fan of Patton himself). Let us not forget that Mauldin was a cartoonist, and probably not worthy of commenting on the generalship of either Truscott or Patton. For the record, the Colt revolvers mentioned were ivory handled, not pearl, examine the record of the Third Army in europe, still amongst the more impressive feats of military power ever, and as for “elaborately staged photo ops”, Patton was awarded two Purple Hearts during his service, can’t get those from the “rear”. Orac, strong work for commenting on a day lost on so maky americans. thanks.

  6. #6 Eric
    May 26, 2008

    Thank you for posting this, Orac. “Glory in death” was fine for gladiators and conquistadors… it shouldn’t still be such a common lie in this day and age.

    Enjoy your blog greatly.

  7. #7 veryoldsoldier
    May 26, 2008

    The irony is that those of us who served during WW2, and didn’t die, were for the most part fascinated by that war, and recall that period as one of the best times of our lives. We who took the test of courage, and somehow passed, do not so much mourn the dead as honor them. They passed that test with flying colors.

    It was at that time a test worth the taking. It should not be administered, as it is today, by cowards and fools..

  8. #8 David D
    May 26, 2008

    Veryoldsoldier, I appreciate and humbly thank you for your great service to this country. Today’s dead deserve our honor and respect, also, whether or not the test is being administered in an agreeable fashion. The test is still worth taking even today.

  9. #9 veryoldsoldier
    May 26, 2008

    The dead deserve honor, the administrators don’t. Honor is in one way the highest form of trust. These administrators have dishonored the dead by their betrayal of that trust.

    Bush, Chaney and their ilk have not earned the right to salute these dead on any day, and especially not on this day.

  10. #10 Uncle Dave
    May 26, 2008

    I have talked with many WWII vets over their experiences of war. From the WWII B-17 pilot who told me,”We never got so much as a scratch during my 29 missions”, to GI’s that talked about personal experiences of day to day survival. Talked with Vietnam vets and and talked with coworkers who have returned from Iraq. I work with a former Lt Col coworker who returned after volunteering in a Basra hospital during her off times. Many children dead or dying with very little doctors could do for they’re severe head trauma.

    Only as some get older do they realize it is never really “worth it”, no matter what the cause, just or not, I am always curious as to what the world would have been like had not hundreds of thousands died and never saw thier 21st, 22and or 28th birthdays for that matter. Would there be a cure for certain cancers now had that unknown soldier would not have died, or thousands of people labeled as Jews had not been slaughtered? Would other lives have been saved later in life had many more returned home? Would certain children’s lives have been different had they’re father or uncle or older brother made it back alive?

    Andy Rooney said it best when he said, “no one gives their lives, they are taken away from them”.

  11. #11 Joe
    May 26, 2008

    First, veryoldsoldier, thank you for your service, and I appreciate your point of view.

    Uncle Dave, your suggestion is very strange. My late father would never have agreed that his service in WW2 was not worth it. I don’t know much about history; but, because I am an early “baby boomer” and the war was recent history, I know a bit about it.

    The only sense I can make of your assertion is that the Axis powers should not have instigated the war. That’s trivial; however, once engaged, we took the only sensible course. As I type this, the last, surviving American vet of WW1 is talking on NPR. He is lucid, and seems satisfied with his service.

    I was not interested in the military, and was not drafted (when eligible) during the War in Viet Nam. However, if a WW2-type situation/attack occurred when I was young- I would have volunteered.

    Uncle Dave, are you confusing the “ideal” with what really happens? War is certainly wasteful; sadly, sometimes it cannot be avoided and is then worthwhile for the defenders.

  12. #12 veryoldsoldier
    May 26, 2008

    To say, as Andy Rooney did, that the lives of those dead were not given, they were taken away, is a gross oversimplification, motivated by the sentimentality of the moment. It denigrates the nature of the sacrifice made by those men and women that offered those lives in case that taking became necessary. They were not as sheep being led to slaughter.
    Few among these dead did not accept these risks knowingly and with determination they could be overcome. It wasn’t that we stood stoically each day determined to do or die, or some such baloney. But we knew, and these dead knew, that it could happen.
    We can’t look at each of these dead one by one and distinguish the bravest from the most unwilling. The volunteers and draftees tended to merge into one. They walked together into harms way. They all deserve the greatest of respect for that alone.

  13. #13 DLC
    May 26, 2008

    A man goes into a war afraid, fights afraid, and only when he’s home and safe does he become unafraid. Courage is not charging up a hill at a machinegun nest, but the very act of walking forward toward the battle. nobody but damn fools want to go to war, and those who do so deserve our heartfelt thanks. So, for you, VeryOldSoldier and for other veterans of all the wars this country has been in, whether they were “just” wars or not, I offer my thanks. For the families of those who died doing it, I offer my condolences as well.
    The reason for Memorial day isn’t to grill hotdogs and swill beer, but to remember those who have served and who have died in that service.

  14. #14 Uncle Dave
    May 26, 2008

    I am not suggesting that it is not worth it! Especially WWII!
    Based on the response, I guess there are a few people that picture this author with a Tie Dye headband and beads. War is out last resort not our first (talk to chicken hawk Bush Cheney, Wolfowitz etc etc. about their views).

    Very Old soldier: With all due respect I do not believe your view is held by all veterans (taken away or given statement). Every vet has his or her own perspective on the issue of loss and those that were taken away from their loved ones. If you feel this is disrespectful, my apologies no disrespect was intended. Rooney was there, was he a decorated combat soldier? Likely not, but he lost a lot of friends and he has his views whether you agree with them or not.

    My Uncle is no longer here because of a tiny little Island called Tarawa. My aunt (a citizen that spent more than a few post war memorial days) may have a different personal opinion on the matter than those who were given the gift of or the luck of the draw of returning the tell the tale to their loved ones.

    A friend of ours never met her father. He was shot down in the last months of WWII. See the very compelling website below on her story.

    I had flight instructor that walked the beaches of one of the islands in the pacific after a battle (WWII Pacific Navy TBM pilot). He talked about the eerie feeling of walking along the beach with other personnel while laughing and joking with his fellow Navy personnel as they walked through a beach of the dead (Marine and Japanese alike). Some would say that that was disrespectful as well however, he was a decorated pilot veteran (shot down twice) and I cannot speak for his experience or his right to speak his mind on his experience. However we all have one thing in common here; we are all alive to talk about it.

    I have nothing but the deepest respect for all those men woman and just barely boys that “GAVE THEIR LIVES” or “Had THEIR LIVES TAKEN AWAY” and to those that served.

    Please do not take my words as some sort of disrespect or that my words are some sort of statement that WWII was something that could have been avoided. My statements have nothing to do war history as much as it has to do with dealing with the loss of loved ones in war. They are gone. Whether a loved one feels that they were taken away from them or that they gave their lives is their view personal experience.

  15. #15 veryoldsoldier
    May 26, 2008

    If war wasn’t man’s version of hell, there would be no courage needed to fight in it. And Rooney had the luxury of reporting on the war and choosing his vantage points without the need to actually stay at that point and fight. If you want to read a real man’s take on the war and the men that fought it – how and why – read Ernie Pyle. Some say the proof of a hero is his death in battle. By that or any other standard, Ernie Pyle was a war hero. And Rooney, if you’re listening, you’re no Ernie Pyle.
    Loved ones have every right to feel their men and boys were taken from them. Rooney in my view is pandering to those feelings. I heard him when he said it and saw him only for the fool that he has been assigned to play.

  16. #16 Hurly
    May 28, 2008

    I always thought that Memorial Day (I remember when it was called Decoration Day) was to remember our dead, not just our war dead. That was what Veterans Day was for.

  17. #17 Jon H
    May 29, 2008

    I think the given/taken away issue depends on the scale at which one looks at it.

    From the close-scale, immediate perspective of a soldier fighting with his platoon, he probably feels he is willingly fighting and giving his life for the sake of his platoon mates, whatever the larger circumstances might be.

    But from the wider perspective of the war as a whole, for WW2 you could say that the Germans who launched the war, and eventually put the soldier in that position, *took* his life.

    ” Some say the proof of a hero is his death in battle.”

    Then the kamakaze were the most heroic men of WW2? Um… I think not.

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