“Oh beautiful, for heroes proved
In liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life.” — “America The Beautiful,” by Katharine Lee Bates
And Memorial Day comes around once more.
Gateway to the summer, to beaches, beer and barbecue, yes. But gateway, too, to reminders of all that was given, taken, lost, to make America. And is it fanciful to think maybe the reminder is needed more this year than in many years past? Perhaps. After all, previous generations have needed reminding, too.
That was true even in October of 1862, when photographer Matthew Brady opened an exhibit at his New York gallery. “The Dead of Antietam” depicted the bodies of American boys who had been killed in a pivotal Civil War battle the month before. It was the first time most Americans had seen with their own eyes the carnage and cost of war. The New York Times was stunned.
“The dead of the battlefield come up to us very rarely, even in dreams,” it editorialized. “We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss this recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type … Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along our streets, he has done something very like it.”
Here, then, was a reminder of how much it took.
So that America might once again be made imperfectly whole.
So that Edison might one day turn on the lights and Bell pick up the phone.
So that we might escape to the ball field on a perfect summer’s day.
So that Mae West might invite us to come up and see her.
So that boys might plunk down their dimes for the latest Superman.
So that Franklin Roosevelt might thunder against an infamous day.
Just over 80 years after Brady opened his exhibit, another photographer, George Strock, snapped a picture of three American soldiers sprawled dead on the shore of Buna Beach in New Guinea, victims of a Japanese ambush. It was the better part of a year before military censors, fearing the effect on the nation’s morale, allowed Life magazine to publish it. The question was kicked all the way up to President Roosevelt, who decided this was something Americans needed to see.
Because here again was a reminder of what it cost.
So that free people might smash a reign of tyranny.
So that girls might someday shriek for Ricky, Pat or Elvis.
So that Martin Luther King might speak his dream.
So that Aretha Franklin — and Gloria Steinem — might demand respect.
So that kids might play astronaut.
So that we might learn to use microwaves, fax machines and computers.
Buna Beach and Antietam Creek are just two battlefields from two of the wars that defined America. On this Memorial Day weekend, let them stand in for San Juan Hill and Breed’s Hill, for Hue and Takur Ghar, for Inchon and the Argonne and all the other places lives have been taken, given, lost, to make America. And keep America. Here at the gateway of summer, in a season of vitriol and face masks, of guns and hydroxychloroquine, a season when keeping America feels like a shaky bet, let them stand as reminders of the awful price once paid.
All so that this country might now pull itself apart. Or make itself imperfectly whole again.