On Memorial Day we should remember that all commemoration is underpinned by ambiguities about the causes, conduct and aims of particular wars. No one has captured the heartbreak of the war dead more effectively than the Marine memorialist E.B. Sledge, who wrote “With the Old Breed,” a horrific account of his nightmare on Peleliu and Okinawa.
Sledge is sometimes simplistically described as an antiwar voice (“So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past.”), but he did not end his gruesome story of combat with a universal denunciation of war. He finished instead with a solemn reminder—somewhere between Horace and Wilfred Owen—that circumstances count.
His words are worth recalling as we cast our eyes over the endless fields of tiny flags we will again see this Memorial Day on the graves of Americans who gave their all for us:
Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country—as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” With privilege goes responsibility.