◆ Memorial Day 1944
In 1944 Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30 as it had been for decades. (It became a Monday holiday in 1970.) It must have been a solemn day as many had already died- and everyone knew it would only get worse. It was only 8 days before D-Day.
Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) was, and is, a time to remember those who died in war. It was begun, as we know it today, after the Civil War and slowly was accepted across both north and south. It was the day to go to the cemetery and decorate the graves of the lost soldiers. It was a day to remember.
But in the midst of World War II, it was also a very real reminder of the cost the country was in the midst of paying. There was a debt being built that might live for many more decades and may never be able to be fully repaid.
John L. Sullivan was a Navy lieutenant during World War II. For Memorial Day 1944 he wrote this essay. The New York Times printed it on May 31, 1982, with the headline: “Memorial Day 1944: Looking Beyond Victory”. As I pause in my remembering thoughts of World War II, grateful that my Dad lived through the war, the essay is a haunting reminder across these past 75 years.
Recurrent in all our tributes to those who fall in battle is a dominant resolve that their sacrifice somehow shall bear fruit. How, we do not know, except in terms of generalities, even platitudes, about a bright new world which shall rise out of the desolation of war. This is our answer, and the only answer we have, to the wanton waste of blood and treasure which is the essence of war.
For Victory alone is inconclusive. It decides the conflict, it ends the war, but of itself it settles no problems, establishes no principles. It is purely negative, for it brings us back where we started, and it was not for this that our comrades died.
His clear-eyed awareness of what was happening around him in the Pacific that year was filled with the pain of what he himself had no doubt witnessed. He knew that war doesn’t solve anything. It only, hopefully, sets the stage for something important and better. Victory is not the purpose of all this he says. Peace it the eventual purpose. But peace is not just the end of or the absence of war. It is the action of building a different and better world in the absence of conflict.
We are taking the first objective of this war, which is Victory. But our sights must be lifted higher. Beyond Victory lies Peace. Will it be the kind of Peace those men had in mind? It is for us to answer that question, all of us. If we answer it well and faithfully, if our voices and ideals help to make the Peace just as our weapons help to make the Victory, then in the years to come, years untroubled by the march of armies, we shall be able to say, in truth, that we have kept faith with those who died. We can do no less, and we can do no more.(-Link)
As Lincoln had said at Gettysburg almost 80 years earlier, it is for us the living to dedicate ourselves to the cause for which they gave their last full measure. It is for the living to build the peace. The war cannot do that. World War II did not do that. But it gave a place for that to happen.
Which is why I have been writing this blog and doing this research. It is about my Dad and his journey in war, but it is also about what happened as a result of that war- and how we may be losing the peace that built a different world. We may be losing the compassion that came at the end of the war to rebuild the countries of our enemies. We may be forgetting that these soldiers on one level or another believed that they were there to build a better world. Very few of them would have put it that way, of course. But to “keep the world safe for democracy” can be such a goal.
Today is another Memorial Day today. It is now 74 years since World War II ended. It did not end war. There are many more graves of many more young men and women in all corners of the world as well as in cemeteries around the United States. Maybe we can raise our voices and live our ideals in order to “make the Peace just as our weapons help to make the Victory.” It is in these actions of ours that our debt for their sacrifice will be redeemed.