Decades before the men Stephen Ambrose immortalized in Band of Brothers, there was another group of fire-hardened warriors whose adventures, excitement and travails during World War I inspired a new age of discovery. In his, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis tells a splendidly horrible tale where the veterans of the War to End All Wars assail the slopes of Mt. Everest.
In what proves to be a regularly fatal parade of grand adventure, these men symbolically claw their way back from the trenches of Verdun, the Marne and the Ardennes. Through their risk, there was a kind of redemption. In these monumental expeditions the men of Flanders Fields blazed their own trail into the heavens.
Of course, they did not need Everest to prove anything. They already had all the proof they needed. John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, is a poignant elegy to those not on Himalayan peaks, but left in the cross-dotted fields of the Belgian countryside.
McCrae’s poem is said to be the inspiration for the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ annual Buddy Poppy program. You’ve probably seen the little red plastic flowers proudly pinned to lapels this time each year. For more than three-quarters of a century, the program has raised millions of dollars to support programs for our veterans and their dependents.
Distributed in remembrance of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, the Buddy Poppies are assembled by hospitalized disabled veterans. As such, the program represents a multitude of honorable, just and deserving causes.
The Buddy Poppies also help to refocus our attention on the purpose of the Memorial Day national holiday. Many of us will surely take the weekend to spend time with our families. We’ll go to the lake or camp or perhaps cook out. These friends and family centered pastimes are among the many precious moments our fallen heroes fought to protect.
It’s easy to romanticize the more lofty goals of war. We know that war is sometimes required for the protection of Constitutional ideals; guarding the nation against tyranny; and securing our borders from invasion. These are each fundamental to the integrity of the nation, but no less important are the more mundane, “way of life” traditions that have likewise been preserved through noble sacrifice.
Perhaps no young soldier gave his life thinking his death would protect the Johnson family’s annual picnic, but maybe he knew by protecting the bigger things, the Johnsons would be sufficiently free and prosperous to have that picnic.
In his “Dirge for Two Veterans,” Walt Whitman tells the story of a
father and son who fell together in battle. Their bodies are solemnly conveyed through town. Bugles and drums call out as they wind toward twin graves. In the last lines of the poem Whitman writes:
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
As we remember those brave souls who dutifully protected our country and our freedoms, we too, should give them due remembrance and whole hearts of love.