Sacrifice, Pain, and Grief

Is it presumptuous to imagine we can know something about those whose lives were lost, perhaps even the “unknowns”? The military women and men who have been killed in war wanted more from life than they got. They began by believing in a higher cause, but ended up, from every frontline report, caring most about the buddies to their right and left. They saw the horrors of combat, but what really frightened them was the threat of moral collapse as feelings of anger, fear, and, perhaps, revenge replaced the stately cohesion of the drill.

Trained in glory, they died in absurdity. On Memorial Day, can we pay tribute to the dead without falsifying what befell them?

“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted,” the Vietnam novelist Tim O’Brien wrote, “or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” O’Brien says that the hallmarks of truth, when it comes to war stories, are obscenity and evil. “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you.”

Such dark notes are struck by the chroniclers of every war, going back to Homer, but they seem especially apt when those being mourned have fallen in a war that, even before its end, has already shown itself to have been mistaken from its first trumpet.

James Carroll | The Boston Globe