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Who can speak for the dead?

Last week is ages ago in blog time, I know, but I just came across a passage in Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter that speaks to a ridiculous pseudo-controversy that engulfed the Internets early last week. Chris Hayes, an editor at The Nation and host of a program on MSNBC (full disclosure: I don't have cable, and have never watched it), made what should have been some uncontroversial remarks about his discomfort with using the word "heroes" to describe Americans who have died in war, since in our dominant political discourse such language "is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war". (I once wrote something similar.) My onetime editor Conor Friedersdorf has penned a nice critical analysis of the idiocy that ensued, but instead of more meta-idiocy let me give you Berry's narrator, speaking of life after her husband Virgil went missing in World War II:

Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn't get mad about Virgil's death. Who was there to get mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God. What made me mad, and still does, were the people who took it on themselves to speak for him after he was dead. I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say. Was Virgil a hero? In his dying was he willing to die, or glad to sacrifice his life? Is the life and freedom of the living a satisfactory payment to the dead in war for their living? Would Virgil think so? I have imagined that he would. But I don't know. Who can speak for the dead? Who can speak for the dead whose bodies are never found, who are forever "missing"? Who can speak for a young man gone clean out of the world, whose body was maybe blown all to nothing, in the midst of terrible fear or pain, in the midst of his last prayer?

What I did know is this. Virgil loved his life. He loved me. He loved his family. He did not want to die. He wanted to come home and live with me and raise a family, and farm with his dad. He knew we were going to have a baby. He never knew he had a daughter. He never knew her name.

I don't mean to be quarrelsome, but the dead are helpless. I was the mother of a helpless baby, and the wife of a dead man who was just as helpless. The living must protect the dead. Their lives made the meaning of their deaths, and that is the meaning their deaths ought to have. I hated for Virgil's death to be made official. I hated for it to be a government property or a public thing. I felt my grief for him made his death his own. My grief was the last meaning of his life in this world. And so I kept my grief. For a long time I couldn't give it up.

Who can speak for the dead? Surely not those whose main political priorities seem to center on making more of them.

About the Author

John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.



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"Americans who have died"Just about every word of that is wrong. They are not Americans. They are soldiers. Servicemen and women. Emphasis on service. And they have not died. They have given, their lives. You don't even have the voice right--it's active. Just as others are actively risking theirs. Whether or not you think it's for a valid cause does not matter. And if you cannot come to terms with the magnitude of their sacrifice next to the puniness of ours, the least you can do is resist the urge to minimize their gift to us by wanting them to be seen as merely Americans who have died.

No, Mark, John has the voice exactly right. With few exceptions, those who have died in battle did not choose to die; they chose to put themselves at risk of death in service to their country and were killed. That is brave enough. And, yes, they were Americans: Americans first, soldiers second. Please don't get self-righteous on their behalf. Veterans can speak for themselves, and, as Hannah Coulter says, no one can speak for the dead.

Does the holiday not also commemorate those who died serving in harm's way as medical personnel? In any event, the soldiers (and others) in question are Americans, and they have died -- phrases like "gave their lives" are often just ways of skirting this cold truth. The validity of the cause is irrelevant, as you say, and has nothing to do with my argument; what worries me are the invalid causes, and unnecessary deaths, which their deaths are frequently used to justify in the present day. And I am not the one unable to recognize the sacrifice that our dead soldiers have made, or trying to minimize their gift; that is what is done by people who use terminological quibbling and faux-patriotic slogans as a way to shout down attempts to think seriously about what it means to honor our war dead.

It seems as if Memorial Day has become -- or at least it can become -- a celebration of war, whether or not it was initially conceived that way. How do we conduct Memorial Day in a manner that does not glorify war?

@Timothy R. Bauman (6/5,9:12 am) Great question; thanks for raising it.I have a couple of tentative thoughts:1 - Re-read Logan's General Orders #11 (which initiated what has become Memorial Day). couple of excerpts stand out to me. "Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms." A worthy reminder that the purpose for and results of waging war are not separate from our remembrances of war."...let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan." A reminder of the ongoing cost of war, of the ongoing obligation---stretching out before us for decades---the entire nation has incurred as a result of waging war.2. Most Civil War deaths did not occur on the battlefield as a result of glorious or heroic courage. They were the result of illness---particularly infectious diseases like malaria and yellow fever. General Logan and the vast majority of Americans living in the 1860s and 70s knew that. Their understanding of martial heroism was tempered by their intimate experience of the hundreds of thousands of casualties that were utterly random, and disconnected from any heroism (or lack thereof) displayed by an individual soldier or sailor.

As a Viet Nam veteran, this raises a lot of mixed emotions. But I never met a single serviceman who wanted to sacrifice his life for his country. Willing, perhaps, but wanting? None. And then I'm reminded of the quote attributed to George Patton: "We don't want you to give your life for your country; We want the other poor bastard to give his life for HIS country."

Mark said: "Just about every word of that is wrong. They are not Americans. They are soldiers.'Since when are the 2 statuses incompatible?Mark, have you served in any branch of the US military? I suspect not or you wouldn't have made such a woefully uninformed statement.

Jimmy--I thought it was self-evident that the sentence was to be read as, they are not merely Americans. John Wilkes Booth and Al Capone are Americans who have died. Ted Bundy and the Boston strangler are Americans who have died. To describe our service men and women, who have given their lives to defend us, in a fashion that does not distinguish them from these other Americans dishonors them. To do so because according them their due honor does not comport with one's political agenda is despicable.

Yes, that's right, Mark: John wrote "Americans" instead of "soldiers" because he did not want to distinguish them from John Wilkes Booth and Al Capone -- and he didn't want to do this because honoring the war dead is incompatible with his "political agenda," according to which dead soldiers have the same moral standing as assassins, gangsters, and serial killers. Come off it.

Mark: are you a veteran .... yes or no, please.

Matthew--I am sure you are right. Certainly someone who accuses those who have different political views of wanting more dead American servicemen and women would not say something despicable, twice.

John Wilkes Booth and Al Capone are Americans who have died. Ted Bundy and the Boston strangler are Americans who have died. And did they die in war? That was the phrase I used, which you have selectively edited ...

Wow. Talk about over-thinking something as poignant as a soldier dying in battle...Just go to a military cemetery, and gaze quietly at the rows of crosses, spiced by stars of David and maybe a few crescents. Say a little prayer of thanks and be on your way, but be careful: your eyes may be so limned with tears that you may stumble. I did it, and I'll be forever grateful...God Bless

Years ago, I spent a long night in a smelly shed on a pier in Beirut beside a box just like the ones in the picture above. The US Naval Aviator beside me was due to fly home for his last time the next morning. Like many Americans before and after him, he had done his duty as ordered and was killed in the process. Neither geopolitics nor nitpicking terminology occupied my thoughts that night.

If ever a picture said a thousand words, the one at the top of this page does.Bob Schwartz, thanks for your much needed reminder.

As an Army veteran and the father of a solder who served two combat tours in Iraq, thank you for this post. Who speaks for the dead? Their families, those who knew and loved them perhaps, but no one else. And certainly not the chickenhawks, cheerleaders and politicians who were so extravagant with their lives.

Mark - your silence in response to my question speaks volumes.Bob - be sure, however, to NOT look at the American flags flying there. According to Mark, these dead are soldiers, not Americans. "They are not Americans. They are soldiers."

Jimmy Mac:And your point is...?

I think we honor our dead by doing our very best to make sure as few as possible die in wars unworthy of that sacrifice. And we honor our dead by taking very good care of all of the people they left behind.

Irene--I agree very much with your comment. The tricky part is what we should say, publicly and privately, about a war that we do not think is worthy of the sacrifice, recognizing and respecting others feel differently and in fact have made great sacrifices that they believe were worthy. That is a tightrope, by the grace of God, I've not had to walk.

I don't find that tricky. Surely we should say that the war is unjust and unworthy of the sacrifice, lest others should fight and die, and their loved ones suffer, for no good reason.

I dont find that tricky.No, John, I can see that you don't. I wish you did.

I guess I don't think it's tricky either. I think we have an affirmative duty, if we believe a war is unjust, to let our elected officials know that and to urge them to bring our soldiers home. I can understand how it might be uncomfortable to do that in a war that has popular support, though.Much easier, I think is publicly supporting our veterans and their families. There is a significant number of homeless veterans, which is a national disgrace, and there are a lot of servicemembers' families here in America struggling to get by. We may not be able to speak for the dead, but we can try to look after the living.

Jimmy Mac: And your point is?Hubris sucks.

Jimmy Mac:Whose hubris?

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