There are truths, that are beyond us, transcendent truths, about beauty, truth, honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen – they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths.
–J. R. R. Tolkien
Words and war have always been close companions. With Memorial Day and the D-Day anniversary passing back-to-back, I’m struck by the apparently universal need for eloquence in remembrance. We do it to honor the dead, but also, I think, to make sense of that which seems senseless.
As I listened to President Obama speak at the services this morning at the American cemetery overlooking Normandy Beach, reminding us of the almost incomprehensible losses of that day, and relating the stories of individual soldiers and their acts of bravery and selflessness, I marveled at how this ritual has become so necessary, so important.
Why do carnage and death draw such poetry from men’s souls? The horrific and the beautiful seem knit together for our species; Kant tried to understand it, to explain it, but nothing represents the relationship so well as the literature, poetry, and, ultimately, myth, that emerges from the aftermath of war.
Experience becomes shared experienced, shared experienced becomes history, then myth; myth becomes “Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilleus.”
Wallace Stevens, in his beautiful poem “Sunday Morning,” says “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams and our desires.” War, the reasons we wage it, and its aftermath defines us as a society as perhaps nothing else does. We shed blood, both our own and that of our enemy, and seek both meaning and explanation for those acts. Sometimes the very immensity of war overwhelms the reasons stated when we first engaged in it, becomes larger than the cause itself.
As the decades slip by after WWII, it’s fascinating to watch the growth of myth that rises up behind it. Since film has become a form of visual literature, we have an evolution of reaction to the war, beginning with propagandistic John Wayne movies and moving–with amazing speed, really–to the honesty of The Best Years of Our Lives as it examines the psychological toll war takes on men; to condemnation of the ugliness of war in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory; and most recently to the more complex take on the war in Saving Private Ryan, which portrays the futility and chaos of war while simultaneously recognizing the heroism of the common men swept up in it.
And so our myth begins to take shape. Cold statistics of battlefield casualties become eloquent and poignant reminders of what was actually lost:
This note doth tell me of ten thousand French
That in the field lie slain: of princes, in this number,
And nobles bearing banners, there lie dead
One hundred twenty six: added to these,
Of knights, esquires, and gallant gentlemen,
Eight thousand and four hundred; of the which,
Five hundred were but yesterday dubb’d knights:
So that, in these ten thousand they have lost,
There are but sixteen hundred mercenaries;
The rest are princes, barons, lords, knights, squires,
And gentlemen of blood and quality.
The names of those their nobles that lie dead:
Charles Delabreth, high constable of France;
Jaques of Chatillon, admiral of France;
The master of the cross-bows, Lord Rambures;
Great Master of France, the brave Sir Guichard Dolphin,
John Duke of Alencon, Anthony Duke of Brabant,
The brother of the Duke of Burgundy,
And Edward Duke of Bar: of lusty earls,
Grandpre and Roussi, Fauconberg and Foix,
Beaumont and Marle, Vaudemont and Lestrale.
Here was a royal fellowship of death!
—Henry V, Act IV, scene viii
We will continue to mark our dead, remember why and when and where they fought, and seek an explanation for our terrible loss. We place red poppies in our lapels to symbolize that loss, fed into collective memory by way of John McCrae’s iconic poem. Who would remember the bones that lie in Flanders Field, if not for the words that remind us?
Words and war will and must remain comrades in arms, the former following close behind the other so that we may never forget, seek our answers, and hope never to fight again, even as our myths show us our destiny is otherwise.