What follows are six views of war, courage, remembrance and the burden of sacrifice throughout our country’s history, almost to the present age.
1. “We were absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for over four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wooed, if that can be called victuals. I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and ate them . . .
-Joseph Plumb Martin (1760 -1850) was a soldier who served in the American army from 1776 to the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. He moved to Maine, applied for a pension and received $8 a month after he proved he needed the money. He’s buried in Sandy Point Cemetery near Stockton Springs with the epitaph of Soldier of the Revolution. The excerpt above is from his experiences at Morristown, New Jersey, during one of the coldest winters of the 18th century.
2. And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
-Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) wrote these words – later to become famous as part of The Star-Spangled Banner -based on his experience at the Battle of Fort McHenry in September, 1814 at Baltimore.They were adopted as part of our national anthem in 1931.
3. My very dear Sarah:
“. . .If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter.. . . The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. .. [It is my hope] that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.. . “
– Major Sullivan Ballou of Providence, Rhode Island, fought with his regiment in the Civil War at First Manassas during which he was mortally wounded. He died ten days later at the age of 32. The excerpt printed above is taken from a letter he wrote to his wife Sarah on July 14, 1861 prior to the battle.
4. In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-During World War I, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian officer who fought in the second battle of Ypres where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. McCrae described the battle as a “nightmare” writing that “for seventeen days and nights gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed. . .” McCrae himself did not survive the war, dying of pneumonia in 1918, the same year in which In Flanders Fields was published posthumously. Since then, it has served as as a record of sacrifice for all who died.
5. World War II was “not just a military campaign but also a parable. There were lessons of camaraderie and duty and inscrutable fate. There were lessons of honor and courage, of compassion and sacrifice. And then there was the saddest lesson of all, to be learned again and again in the coming weeks as they fought across Europe and in the coming months as they fought their way back toward a world at peace; that war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained.”
-Excerpt from Guns at Last Light, volume three of the Liberation Trilogy published in 2013 by Rick Atkinson, American writer and historian.
6. “ …As Americans who fought in that war [Vietnam], we are frequently asked about its lessons. There are few easy answers, in part because every conflict is unique and because we have learned that attempts to apply past lessons to new crises sometimes do more harm than good. But a few things are clear. The first is not personal to us, but a principle that applies to all who wear the uniform: We must never again confuse a war with the warriors.”
– Excerpt from an OpEd by John McCain, John Kerry, and Bob Kerrey in the New York Times, May 24, 2016. All three served in Vietnam. McCain, the senior Senator from Arizona, was a Navy pilot who was shot down, captured, imprisoned and tortured for nearly six years. Kerry, the current Secretary of State, was an officer in the Naval Reserve, and was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts for his service. Bob Kerrey, a former Governor of Nebraska, was severely wounded and received the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military decoration.