Why should we remember places with strange names, inhabited by tribes whose languages and religions and customs are unfamiliar, most of whom hate us? Why should we remember valleys called the Gowardesh or the Khien Phuong, towns and hamlets with names we can scarcely pronounce, Karabilah, Chonghyon, Cam Lo, Sokkogae, Hangnyong? Even when the words are more recognizable or carry ancient connections to better known locales, they seem exotic: Bois-de-Consenvoye, Chatel-Chehery, Rouge Bouquet, Chemin des Dames.
We remember. These names are carved into the American soul, as are ones we know almost as nearby neighborhoods—Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, Antietam—names to inspire awe and terror and pride and admiration and astonishment all at once, mixed into a feeling that defies rational explanation.
Perhaps this is because what happened at these places, on these hallowed grounds, touches within us the deepest reflexes of reverence and piety—yes, for if there are no atheists in the foxholes, neither are there any on the grounds where men fought and fell so that we could live.
You could say that we live in a free country, and that is so, of course. At these places, on these grounds and so many more, men fought for the freedoms on which our nation stands, thrives, endures. But while it is well to think there is some long-range and overarching purpose to the wars Americans have waged over more than two centuries, and that this purpose is a decent and even a noble one, a tin sound inevitably accompanies the formal words that mark the deeds entrusted to our remembrance. It is not the fault of the language: conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity, and upheld the highest traditions, and inspiring valor, selfless devotion. The words used in citations for military valor are not hollow if we remember the persons and actions to which they refer.
We must remember men caught by surprise who threw themselves on grenades to absorb the force of explosions that would have killed their buddies. We must remember ambushed men who ran out of bullets and kept fighting with bayonets against hordes of savages so their brothers could retreat to defensive positions to regroup and fight again. We must remember young noncoms and ordinary infantrymen scarcely out of adolescence racing up muddy hills in the face of machine gun fire to save the lives of wounded comrades.
They call Memorial Day by a different name, Remembrance Day, in England. Men remember those who saved them more deeply than they remember the causes for which they fought. Yes, they know their fellow warriors upheld the highest honor, and they are right to tell us so. But we would have no freedom and no honor if we did not have men willing to fight and die together, regardless of whether others, in other places and at other times, would recall the sacrifice.
Yes, surely, we can say and do say and do well to tell our children on this day (Memorial Day, the last Monday in May by Act of Congress), that free men are more likely to fight and sacrifice their lives–for their comrades, for their families, for their country, for the ideas their country stands for–than slaves are likely to fight for their masters. We appreciate that American soldiers were stupefied when they found dead Korean and Vietnamese enemies chained to their heavy guns.
The freedom Americans grow up with and take for granted makes such qualities as adaptability, innovation, initiative normal when not second nature. The mental flow we grow up with tells us from the earliest age that we can and should think for ourselves–whether it is about grace or about when to go for a double play or about taking out a machine gun nest with a rifle.
We cannot so neatly explain why “think for yourself” is so often interpreted as “think of the other guys first.”
Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr., walking point, saw a Chicom force about to overwhelm his company; the place was Chonghyon, the day November 5, 1950. He stood in the clear, fired until he fell, long enough for his unit to retreat to a safer position. The Medal of Honor citation speaks of Cloud’s “dauntless courage” and “gallant self-sacrifice.” The teenager who had dropped out of high school in Wisconsin to join the Marines in 1942, who fought at Guadalcanal and Okinawa was offered a medical discharge, turned it down, fought on. After the war he married and fathered a daughter, but in ’48 he joined the Army, though they would not give him the sergeant’s stripes he had earned in the Marines. On that cold day in Korea he was a corporal.
At Chonghyon, he told his men to tie him to a tree (after eight bullet wounds he could no longer stand), fall back, and regroup. Firing his Browning until he succumbed to the onslaught, he saved his company, Company E, 19th of the 24th. We will remember.
At Chateau Thierry, eastern France, in July 1918, elements of the newly formed 42nd Infantry asked to halt the advance that had been designed to break the final German offensive. The Rainbow Division was winning, but at great cost. The request was reasonable. The 69th New York said it would consider it a compliment to be ordered forward. Douglas MacArthur’s comment was, “By God it takes the Irish when you want a hard thing done.” They did it as they had once done it on land much closer to home, when Robert E. Lee advised his lieutenants, “Do not engage the Irish.” The hard thing got done, and a few months later, a few days from the German surrender, they were still the point of the mighty American Expeditionary Force and still among the units taking the heaviest losses. Joyce Kilmer, a well-known poet, writer, and literary editor in civilian life and now a sergeant in the “Fightin’ Sixty-Ninth,” was among the last to fall. He had scribbled some lines six months earlier after a bombardment made a direct hit. They are read at the funeral for every member of the regiment. The first stanza names the place:
In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day,
Built by never a spade nor pick
Yet covered with earth ten metres thick.
Another group of New Yorkers, the 369th New York, “Harlem’s Own,” had been lent to the French Fourth Army, both for strategic reasons and due to American racial segregation. They were clamoring to be sent to the front. They never lost ground nor a man by capture, served in action continuously longer than any other American regiment, and were collectively awarded the Croix de Guerre. No fewer than 171 men among them received that award individually as well. The first of these was Henry Lincoln Johnson, who, while on guard duty with Needham Roberts, fought off a German attack using a bolo knife and a club when ammo ran out. “These fighters from Hell,” the Germans said, “these men of bronze.” The name stuck, and the 369th yells “Hellfighters!” the way the 69th cries “Garryowen in glory!” when it goes into battle.
Most recently, the Hellfighters, who like the Fightin’ 69th have deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been on missions to Mali and Cameroon, places some of its men cannot locate on a map. Which you can say is to their credit, with no irony or insufferable condescension. Since the Civil War, which gave rise to Memorial Day, American fighting men have gone to more places than even the most learned geographer can catalogue. And in fact they have shown a tremendous capacity for taking a true interest, respectful and friendly, in the peoples and lands they have succored, often receiving in return resentment and envy and even murder. But in a soldier’s mental geography, the compass always points to the “thin red line o’ heroes when the drums begin to roll,” as Kipling put it after the 93rd Highlanders stopped a Russian cavalry charge at Balaclava, somewhere out there in the Crimea, on the way to Afghanistan.
This came to mind while at an event celebrating the Union League Club’s 150th anniversary. Formed as a pro-Union, pro-Lincoln group during the Civil War, the club played an active role in the formation and recruitment of the 69th New York during the Civil War and the 369th New York just before the outbreak of the Great War. Resplendent in their dress blues, the Guard men sat down to a military mess to express their appreciation. The club’s membership has included presidents, senators, and others of questionable ilk, but as an institution it has made up for this through active involvement in civic as well as military affairs, usually with good sense predominating over fevered reform-mindedness. Notable recent initiatives include support of the Wounded Warrior Project.
A couple blocks south of Union Station, it is a nice old club the way these nice old New York clubs are, with substantial collections in its library, comfortable rooms for visitors, elegant ballrooms and even a quite good kitchen. And at the bar the drinks are generous, which may partly explain the genial mood among the old and not so old soldiers who were there that evening, veterans and active duty. One active duty officer was Raymond Odierno, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, on hand to see old friends and take a stab at the cuts in the military budget that, he thinks, threaten our ability to hold the thin red line.
Surely, given the demands placed upon our defense establishment, cuts are risky business. In the final analysis, some students of the military say, it all depends on the soldier walking point, such as Robert Miller, who on January 25, 2008 was surprised by enemy fighters entrenched on higher ground in the Gowardesh Valley of Konar Province, Afghanistan. Like Mitchell Red Cloud some 55 years before, Miller, a Special Forces sergeant, charged the hostiles while warning the men behind him to fall back and take cover. Shot in the chest, he kept moving and firing to draw the enemy’s attention away from the U.S.-Afghan allied patrol.
Between the wars in which Mitchell Red Cloud and Robert Miller served to their last heartbeat was Jack Jacobs, also on hand at the Union League Club. In March 1968, Lt. Jacobs was serving as an advisor to a South Vietnamese Army battalion in the Mekong Delta. About to be surprised by “the largest, best armed, most cohesive Viet Cong unit in the region” (as he writes in his recent memoir), he and his NCO, a Texan named Ray Ramirez, sensed, but too late, the mortar attack that shattered their column. One eye closed, shrapnel to his face and head, Sgt. Ramirez and the South Vietnamese commanding officer critically injured, the young lieutenant bandaged Ramirez, dragged him to safety, and rushed back into the exposed field under the mortars and bullets to rescue the CO, all the while calling in air strikes.
And he kept going back to retrieve more wounded and disperse Vietcong squads trying to reach the perimeter behind which he had regrouped the badly damaged company for what became a successful stand until the rest of the battalion arrived to repulse the enemy, denying them what should have been a clear victory.
Why remember these old stories? Even if we tire of bemoaning the fact that Memorial Day has been turned into a weekend of shopping and fun, we should keep in mind the phrase Colonel (by the time he retired) Jacobs used for the title of his memoir, If Not Now, When? It is a quote from Rabbi Hillel, a sage who lived in the first century A.D. and to whom the authors of the Talmud often refer. It means pretty much what it says: It is better to do what we must when we can than to put it off on the theory that we will have future opportunities. Perhaps one may have other chances to do what one’s ethos demands–but why put it off? Jack Jacobs preferred to seek more chances, even after his acts of valor–those words again–in Kien Phuong on that day that would have much worse than it was had he not been who he was. He returned to combat by joining the Airborne, circumventing the Army policy that barred Medal of Honor winners from returning to war zones.
It is worth remembering this: the places where they stood, from Valley Forge to Manassas, from Fredericksburg to the Wilderness; “the uniforms that guard us”–Kipling again, and Kipling was fond of our country–grumbling and unflinching, laughing and sometimes bitching, but always getting it done, even when losing first and then returning; the ones we lost, always to remember, we always came back and never left anyone behind. They will never leave our memory, wherever they were–Midway, Anzio, Omaha Beach, the medivac choppers landing in the burning fields of the Ia Drang valley. It is worth remembering this.
We will remember.
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