(This column originally appeared in another newspaper in 2002. I think it makes an important point, so I have submitted it, with a few minor revisions, for this issue. I hope you will agree and forgive me for recycling it for this Memorial Day.)
In a song called “The Green Fields of France,” an Australian folk singer, Eric Bogle, addresses a young soldier whose name is engraved on a cross in a World War I cemetery in France.
The soldier, Willie McBride, was 19 when he died in “The Great War,” World War I. At the time, this war was called “The War to End All Wars,” and it was arguably one of the most senseless wars in history.
In one of the verses of the song, the singer asks this question of Willie:
Did you leave any a wife or a sweetheart behind,
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined.
Although you died back in nineteen sixteen,
In that faithful heart are you forever nineteen.
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enclosed forever behind a glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.
Unfortunately, there are millions of men, and women as well, who have been casualties of the many wars fought over the history of mankind, and nearly all of them are not even names on crosses or photographs in our memory books any more. They are forgotten by history, remembered, if at all, only as estimates of the number of dead in almanacs and casualty lists in military records.
For our collective memory is short, and only our most recent war dead are still real people to those of us who survive. Willie and his comrades, who died in wars so long ago, have no one to remember them at all.
Willie, of course, was British, not American, and when he died, America was not yet involved in World War I. But it is still worth remembering him when we pause for Memorial Day on Monday.
We Americans like to think that we arrived at where we are all by ourselves, but our way of life and our way of government have their roots in conflicts throughout human history. The ancient wars of the Hebrews, the Greeks and the Romans and the colonial wars of the 17th and 18th centuries contributed to the development of our society, just as the conflicts of 1776, 1864 and those of the last century did.
In short, the foundation for our society and culture rests on the military and civilian dead of centuries of warfare. And most of those individuals are remembered, if at all, as names engraved on crosses or as unidentified faces in photographs. A few moments of reflection by us is the only monument the vast majority of them will ever have.
More important, the more we reflect on those faceless dead and how they died, the more likely we are to work toward ending the cruelty and waste of war.
As you remember our war dead on Monday, save a few minutes to reflect on those faceless others who gave their all — guys like Willie McBride.