"What I thought were piles of cordwood I later learned were the bodies of 2500 men, killed by withering fire from the Nazi gun emplacements built into the cliff."

— from the D-Day memoirs of Tracy Sugarman, U.S. Navy, 1942-1945

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Memorial Day 2004

   In the film Saving Private Ryan (SPR), after being informed of the deaths of the three Ryan brothers, and of the surviving brother's participation in the Normandy assault, General George C. Marshall reads a famous letter written by President Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby in 1864. Lincoln had been contacted by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, who had written on behalf of Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a constituent. Andrew explained that Mrs. Bixby had lost five sons in the Civil War, and he requested that Lincoln send her a note of condolence.

   At the request of SPR director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Robert Rodat added the letter-reading scene to the script during a rewrite. It is clear that no one involved with the production of the film was aware of the true fate of the Bixby brothers during filming, or else this seemingly inspirational letter would probably not have been used. In fact, it was later discovered that only two of the Bixby sons, Charles and Oliver, were actually killed in battle. Of the remaining three, one had been captured by Confederate forces and later honorably discharged following his return to the North, one had deserted and joined the Confederacy following his capture, and the third had deserted the Northern Army and become a sailor.

   Many historians disagree on whether Lincoln was the true author of the letter, some suggesting that it may have been written for Lincoln by John Hay, one of the President's secretaries. Following is the text of the letter to Mrs. Bixby:

Executive Mansion, Washington, November 21, 1864.
Dear Madam,
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

   Authorship and historical accuracy aside, the words of the letter itself, and the intent of whomever wrote it, are perhaps more important, and especially on this Memorial Day, May 31, 2004. We will soon have a new crop of veterans, and a new crop of dead, and we either have to get better at remembering them or get better at ensuring that no one else need die. And perhaps the two are intertwined. The more vividly we remember tragedy, the less likely we are to become numb to it.

   The raw anguish and sincere gratitude of the simple words of the Bixby letter — designed to comfort both a mother mourning the loss of her sons and a nation mourning the loss of many sons, sweethearts, and fathers — still resonates deeply today and touches all of us. We need to hear such words with each flag-draped coffin that rolls off a transport returning from foreign battlefields. And we need to see those coffins, and think about each life unlived. We need to be touched every day by these words, not just on this " last Monday in May."

   Such acts of remembrance have become — in my lifetime — something that Americans would just as soon forget. Is it the American attention span that is the culprit? Could it be that in our relentless celebration of youth and vitality, we cannot face evidence of our mortality, our fragility?

   Today's wars, like World War II, are being fought on foreign soil, in towns and villages with unpronounceable names, thousands of miles away; they are not fought in America. Bastogne and Peliliu have become Tora Bora and Fajullah. But something very essential is different today. In the America of 2004, even though we are at war, our government urges us to go about our normal lives, to continue to pursue our various definitions of happiness, to continue to spend at Memorial Day sidewalk sales, and to eat too much at barbeques. Memorial Day is more a marker for the beginning of Summer than it is a time to remember those whose lives stopped at the age of 19, or 20, never to experience another Summer at all. Modern war for Americans does not involve the WW II–era sacrifices of shortages and rationing. We willfully spend $50 or more every few days to gas up our SUVs and half of every Happy Meal ends up in the trash. We put more effort into upgrading our cell phones than to taking the time to even read the names of those who've been killed. Nothing is asked of us on the Home Front but that we continue to "Support the Troops" and pray for a quick conclusion. What does it really mean to support the troops? I imagine that, minimally, it should mean to think about those still fighting and to remember those who've died. And, I fear, collectively, that we are largely incapable of even that.

   There are American soldiers, who, along with their families, make daily sacrifices in the wars currently being fought on CNN. The soldiers take the supreme risk; the families endure separation and other hardships. Perhaps they cannot even afford their rent or mortgage payments, or to put food on the table. They know the cost of war in intimate terms, while the rest of America sees it as a news event, dismissable via the ubiquitous "clicker," easily lost in the sea of hundreds of TV channels. When their loved ones die in these wars, those families are irrevocably altered forever. They know a grief the rest of us will never know. By not remembering these deaths, we are more easily able to forget that they are anything more than part of a body count on a breaking news report or in the paper, and we remain untouched.

   I believe we should be touched by the words of the Bixby letter every day. I believe the ceremonies that honor the dead should be national ceremonies, even that of unloading the dead. The images of the dead should be publicized. We need to see those silver coffins glinting in the sun — to remind us of the contrasting sunlessness of death. And we need to see the flag draped across each one, so we know that these few have died for the many. That these strong have died for the weak. That these brave have died for the cowardly. They need to be seen to make us stop and remember that we are at war, and that we need to at least take a moment and realize that these dead have no more moments, that those the dead have left behind are grieving, and that there are people whose lives have changed forever. For the honored dead to be truly honored, we have to pay attention. Not just today. But every day. In our hearts, every day needs to be Memorial Day.
   More perspective about the meanings of Memorial Day this year come via Tom Murrell, a Vietnam War veteran who has written with great eloquence on remembering our veterans in a trio of essays:

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