Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work —

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years the passengers will ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

I am the grass.

Let me work.

In his poem “Grass”, Carl Sandburg laments how even the bloodiest battles in history are soon forgotten, as quickly as the grass covers the places of slaughter. Every year we Americans devote a day, usually a few hours, to remember and honor fellow Americans who have served, sacrificed life, body and mind for our country. It is fitting that we honor “the embattled farmer who fired the shot heard round the world…spirit that made those heroes dare to die to let their children live free”, and those at Gettysburg who “gave their lives so that a nation might live.”

But we must be certain, as concerned citizens, that we don’t commit our country’s lifeblood thoughtlessly. Slogans can be useful to unite us, but can be distorted. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” — defeat the Japanese but don’t lock up 125,000 Japanese–Americans. “Never forget 9/11!” — exterminate terrorists wherever we can, but do not use it as a pretext to invade another country. “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember the Maine!” were used to fire up Americans for what was two giant land grabs. “My country right or wrong”, “Love it or leave it”, “These colors don’t run” — emotional words that shut down rational thought. Questioning our government’s actions is not treason or cowardice. If someone had questioned the Gulf of Tonkin incident or the bogus Domino Theory, perhaps we could have avoided losing 58,000 lives in Vietnam. If someone had challenged the falsehood that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and was affiliated with Al-Qaeda, we would not be still paying the price for invading Iraq.

Patriotic songs can be a uniting force, but can be misused or misunderstood. “The Yanks are coming! It’ll soon be over over there!” World War I cost 115,000 American lives in five months of battle (30,000 a month!) but wasn’t “the war to end all wars” nor did it “make the world safe for democracy”, the ceasefire armistice merely papering over the continued hatred of the warring European powers for each other which erupted 20 years later with a more horrific war. “God Bless America” is a beautiful song, but the words do not mean that God is on our side. The words “I hope”, “Please let”, “may” God “stand beside us and guide us with a light from above” are unspoken — the song is a plea that we do the right thing. Nazi belt buckles bore the words “Gott mit uns”, God is with us. Muslim terrorists shout “God is great!” before blowing themselves up.

“War is all hell. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” General Sherman experienced the horrors of war and warned us against sugarcoating its hideous realities. Wilfred Owen, who suffered four years in the trenches during World War I and was killed four days before the armistice, describes in his poem, “Dolce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori” (how sweet and honorable it is to die for your country), a death he witnessed, a man dying from poison gas. He comes upon a man telling “true” war stories to a group of young men, “ardent for some desperate glory”. He interrupts the man: “If you have seen what I have seen, you would not tell the old lie, ‘How sweet and honorable it is to die for your country.’” Perhaps 1% of the American population serves in the military and less than that has experienced the horror of combat. Civilians can get only a hint of the reality in “Saving Private Ryan”, “Platoon”, or “Born on the Fourth of July” or seeing the aftermath of wounds in the Wounded Warrior ads. Then we can go out to eat or watch a ball game.

On this Memorial Day, The U.S. has 160,000 troops stationed in 150 countries, many in harm’s way. The war in Ukraine, the continued threat of terrorist groups, tensions with China and North Korea all have the potential for war. The best way we citizens can remember and honor our past and present warriors is to be vigilant that our government requires their blood and sacrifice only in a worthy cause. On Memorial Day, honor the warrior, not war.

Jim McNiff lives in Danvers and is a retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. His son was awarded the Bronze Star in the Gulf War. His grandson recently finished Infantry Basic Training at Fort Benning, now Fort Moore.

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