Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial Day, 2013

(Mostly reposted from 2009)

From the Lay of Horatius, by Thomas Babington Macaulay:

But the Consul's brow was sad, and the Consul's speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall, and darkly at the foe.
"Their van will be upon us before the bridge goes down,
And if once they might win the bridge, what hope to save the town?"

Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,

"And for the tender mother who dandled him to rest,
And for his wife who nurses his baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus, that wrought the deed of shame?

"Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, with all the speed ye may!
I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand may well be stopped by three,
Now, who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?"

Then out spake Spurius Lartius; a Ramnian proud was he,
"Lo, I will stand at thy right hand, and keep the bridge with thee."
And out spake strong Herminius, of Titian blood was he:
"I will abide on thy left side, and keep the bridge with thee."

"Horatius," quoth the Consul, "As thou sayest, so let it be."
And straight against that great array, forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome's quarrel spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son, nor wife, nor limb, nor life, in the brave days of old.

We Americans celebrate three major patriotic holidays throughout the year. People tend to say the same things at each, forgetting sometimes that each one has its own character. On Veterans' Day, we celebrate the service of all of our veterans, honoring all who have taken their turn keeping the bridge. On Independence Day, we honor everyone, veterans and others, who have served our nation's institutions, faithfully bequeathing a legacy of freedom under law that, God willing, we will in turn bequeath to our children. But on Memorial Day, we specifically honor those who paid the ultimate price for our liberty.

Memorial Day is for Nathan Hale. It's for Sullivan Ballou. It's for Lloyd Williams, who led his Marines into that French forest that would be known forever afterward as the Bois de Brigade de Marine. It's for Rodger Young on New Georgia, Ernest Evans off the island of Samar, and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. on Utah Beach, each earning a Medal of Honor posthumously. And it's for Mel Apt, who was all too briefly the fastest man alive, until his X-2 went into an unrecoverable flat spin and hit the unforgiving desert floor.

Not many of us know that the Star-Spangled Banner has more than one verse. Francis Scott Key originally wrote four stanzas. The last one begins:

O, thus be it e'er when free men shall stand
Between their loved home, and the war's desolation!

The young men and women we have recently commissioned as Second Lieutenants and Ensigns have signed on to lead their comrades into making that stand, knowing full well what the cost might be. They have volunteered to stand their post upon that bridge, just as the Romans Horatius, Spurius Lartius, and Herminius did back in their day. Most of them will survive their experience. Macaulay tells us that all three survived the battle. But he also tells us that in some versions of the story, Horatius died holding the end of the bridge while his companions withdrew. Some of the young men and women we've commissioned this week will find that fate to be their own.

The task they leave to us is to honor their memory. We must never forget those things for which they gave their last full measure of devotion. We must remember their courage, their honor, their dignity. And we must teach our children to remember, to make these stories of bravery and sacrifice live for each new generation.

For as long as we remember them, they never truly die.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

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