Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Memorial Day in my childhood and adolescence meant parades comprised of Little League teams, the high school band, Boy Scouts and Girl Scout troops, cars of Gold and Silver Star mothers, the VFW and American Legion posts, and most of the rolling equipment of the Darien Volunteer Fire Department. But looming over those celebrations, which concluded at the veterans section of the local cemetery, was the growing conflict in Vietnam. It wasn’t long before the Memorial Day observances became politicized, the sharp polarization of the nation intruding into remembrances of those who had died in World Wars I and II and the Korean conflict. Increasingly bellicose speeches from current military officers defending the war were met by a growing number of protest vigils. Lost amid the nation’s rancor were the poignant stories of sacrifice and loss casting sorrowful and somber shadows across countless small town parades.
This year my thoughts will center on a small cemetery in northeast France my family and I visited last fall. Near the tiny farming village of Bony, the Somme American Cemetery holds the remains of several hundred American soldiers killed between September and November, 1918. The white crosses and stars of David within a beautifully landscaped enclosure are like countless other military cemeteries around the world. But this one includes the grave of First Lieutenant Edgar M. Whitlock, killed in action on September 26, 1918. My great uncle Edgar grew up in New York City and was a graduate of Cornell University. Newly married, and with his engineering degree in hand, he headed west to California to begin a career and family. But at age 29 he interrupted those plans to join the Allied Expeditionary Force, eventually shipping out to France. The send off of this New York division must have been a grand, patriotic affair. But just a few months later he died alone, at night, killed while out between the trenches marking the lines of attack for the planned advances the next day. Had he survived that night, and the next forty three nights, he would have made it to the Armistice, no doubt arriving home to a hero’s welcome. Instead, he lies in a peaceful but lonely place, far from home.
My mother was almost four when word reached Connecticut that her uncle had been killed. She remembered little of that day, except for her mother crying. Relatives were given the option of bringing their loved ones home for burial, or having them interred in a new military cemetery in France. Edgar had no children, his marriage had been disintegrating, so his parents and my grandmother chose to have him remain where he fell with his comrades. Until my son took an interest in his life and in the military campaign he participated in, he was little more than a name on the family tree, occasionally remembered as the relative who died in World War I.
Today the farms surrounding Bony are serene, picturesque. Except for the cemetery and a large American memorial a mile away there is little evidence of the carnage that took place there or along the Somme thirty miles away where French, British, and German soldiers died at an appalling rate in 1916. On the Somme battlefield one can see the seemingly endless line of British cemeteries strung across the landscape, today looking like English country gardens. They trace the grim line of assault that cost the British 52,000 casualties on July 1, 1916 alone. Along the Somme at Thiepval an impressive monument towers over the landscape in remembrance of 73,000 French and British soldiers with no known graves – “Known but to God.” “Inconnu.” Like these soldiers, Uncle Edgar died in a cause that was marked by the incremental ebb and flow of opposing trench lines back and forth across the ruined countryside. His death neither hastened, nor delayed, the final Allied victory. And it didn’t deter a later conflagration that would consume the same combatants a little over two decades later. Until our visit, the only tangible artifact of his death was my mother’s faint memory of my grandmother’s tears.
Our visit held particular meaning for David, recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Pennsylvania National Guard. Unlike Edgar, he returned home to us safe. But he, too, experienced the death of fellow soldiers including two killed by a roadside bomb in Jalalabad near the base they shared together. No doubt the visit to Bony reminded him of the somber ceremony he attended marking their loss ninety-two years after Edgar’s death in no-man’s land during the war that was to “end all wars.” It seems very doubtful that the sacrifice of thousands in Afghanistan will really bring that kind of ultimate resolution to the violent conflict there or in the region either.
The church wrestles with the appropriate way to acknowledge Memorial Day. We’ve learned something from the Vietnam era, I think, about caring for soldiers and their families even when we disagree deeply with the wars they are fighting. I am proud of my son, and honor his decision to join the army even though it was a decision I would not have made for him. But honoring those who serve in the military, or those who have fallen, should not make us reluctant to cry out over the waste of life in endless causes whose nobility is often suspect in the face of the arrogance, manipulation, and deception that is typically the basis of their origins. So let us pray for peace this Memorial Day, and let us remember those who have died in their country’s service. But let us not drape the tragic waste of human life with false glory or vain national pride. And let us find the courage to challenge leaders – our own and others – who send the young to do their violent bidding while asking little sacrifice of themselves.
Uncle Edgar’s grave is in a peaceful, beautiful place, respectfully tended. Few come to visit; it is too isolated, and too many generations have passed. I’m glad David encouraged us to make our pilgrimage. We may have been the only members of his family ever to visit this place. Certainly we are the only ones in the last sixty years to make the journey. But in the end, his resting place evokes little of the heroic and the glorious. It is simply lonely and sad.
John H. Thomas