Special Report

Memorial Spasms

Remembering the dead in a time of division.

By 5.28.04

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After the depressing media spectacle of Abu Ghraib, Memorial Day can't come quickly enough. It's about time to even the ledgers and remember the dominant narrative of the U.S. military -- brave and honorable service.

Now comes word that Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau will use his strip this Sunday, May 30th (which is Memorial Day in point of fact), to list the names of our war dead in Iraq. Somehow Trudeau will fit over 700 names onto six cartoon panels, finishing the seventh panel with the note, "List as of April 23, 2004."

Trudeau has always been an original, so it's surprising that he would choose to create a cartoon version of Ted Koppel's self-serving wake on Nightline last month. On April 30, Koppel read the names of the Iraq war dead over the length of his entire half-hour on the air. He concluded the program with a homily reminding us that we are losing Americans in Iraq, and then claimed he was not against the war. Maybe he isn't. But Nightline's tribute inevitably became a program about Ted Koppel.

Trudeau, similarly, explains that his strip is motivated by the need to keep the military's sacrifices in mind, "whether one thinks we belong in Iraq or not." Both he and Koppel must know that it is difficult to make roll calls of the dead politically neutral while a war is going on. Difficult, but not impossible.

They might have emulated the understated gravity with which PBS's The Newshour With Jim Lehrer has honored the fallen in Iraq. Whenever new combat deaths accumulate, their faces appear for a few seconds on screen, long enough for us to read their ranks and hometowns. They become names instead of numbers, and their images are bathed in that rarest of American commodities - silence. Then the show resumes.

No one has felt the need to ask Lehrer to clarify what it all means, because he has chosen to incorporate remembrance into the program, instead of making a program out of remembrance. That's something like the way we used to mourn.

As others have noted, in earlier conflicts America did not pause to honor its dead until the fighting was over and victory secured. There were burials, Taps, gold stars in windows denoting individual sacrifices, the names behind the numbers; but the fighting went on, and while it did, lingering fascination with death tallies was simply defeatism. Case in point: Memorial Day was first observed in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended.

In that America, the sacrifices of the military were felt with greater proximity, since so many families had men serving. It's a different story now with our all-volunteer army. A small segment of American society is directly touched by the war, while for the rest of us it's peacetime. Detached from any war effort outside of the urging to stay calm in the face of vague terror warnings, we find it easy to fret about failure or mouth platitudes about bringing the troops home. The much smaller casualty figures of our contemporary wars traumatize us more than the devastating losses of the past.

Those losses were absorbed with stoicism and the resolve of common loyalties, none stronger than a reverence for those who fight. With the death of that unity a generation ago, patriotism became like everything else the Boomers touched -- a matter of personal taste. Once unifying rituals like honoring the war dead are now hopelessly freighted with political interpretation. Remembrance is less like a ritual and more like a spasm -- confused, compromised, and absent the consolations that memory sometimes brings.

Those who oppose the Iraq war will applaud Trudeau, except for those in the Abu Ghraib faction of the Left who believe U.S. troops are monsters not worthy of tribute. Many who support the war, on the other hand, will feel that Trudeau's panels are entirely political. And some other war supporters, like me, will feel ambivalent, at least until I see the cartoon.

Because Trudeau is remembering, in his way. Unlike Koppel, he won't conclude his cartoon with a potted lecture, unless one considers that final panel an editorial comment. It could also be an acknowledgment of those recently fallen whose names were not included. I'm not jaded enough to dismiss the latter possibility. Memorial Day should have less cynicism, more silence.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.