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.
John McCrae, 1915
As we approach another November 11th, it would serve us well to refocus on the true reason why we honor Veteran’s Day. On the American calendar, Memorial Day is greatly esteemed, as well it should. Schools are closed, We remember the sacrifice of the men and women who have died serving our country, and we should, because that sacrifice is significant. However, we often miss a day that slips by in November, sometimes not even remembering that it is a holiday until we stare at the empty mailbox trying to remember what it is that we've forgotten. Even when we do remember, we don't often think of the sacrifices still being made by those the day commemorates. I believe Veteran's Day has just as much significance in its own way.
John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields is often quoted at times of remembrance, but so often we miss the sacrifice that is made by those who receive the torch thrown from the failing hands of the poem.[i] We see the torch throwers, and venerate their memory, but miss those still carrying the torch passed to them decades ago. We fail to notice the hesitant ones who don’t stand in the church services or community remembrance events (if they even have one anymore) because they unassumingly and quietly continue to carry the torch passed to them so many years ago. Why does the torch weigh these heroes down, to the point where they feel unworthy of such obviously deserved recognition?
My great uncle, Howard Struble, flew fifty missions in a B-17 bomber over Europe in 1944 and 1945. He was an anomaly. In 1943, in order to fly fifty missions over Germany, a crewman normally had to literally beat the odds. Even if a plane had a 5% chance of being shot down (pretty good odds for that year), 20 flights (which normally counted for 40 missions) would mean that one would have to literally be lucky to have not been shot to the ground yet. Even in 1944 when the percentage of planes shot down was less, there was a better than 50% chance that one would have to experience being shot down at some point. But what was the experience like for the hands catching the torch?
In a diary entry on October 20th, 1944, my uncle wrote about flak so heavy he didn’t “see how we got through it” and the plane having “half a dozen flak holes, all up around the nose.”[ii] But I don’t think that the desire for self-preservation is the reason why the torch carried by our surviving veterans is so cumbersome. The clue, I think, lies on an entry from an earlier date.
On September 21st, 1944, my uncle wrote “One plane got hit in the waist, killing both waist gunners. It broke in two when it landed. . .Bombed a marshalling yards [sic.] in Debrerogen Hungary, only 100 miles from Russia the tail gunner was also killed. It turned out to be some of our buddies that were in our barracks at Drew and went thru training with us. It was their 1st mission, the lower ball man got out without a scratch. All the control cables were cut and all that was holding the ship together was about 8 inches at the top and 2 ft. at the bottom. . .”[iii] The question that haunted “Uncle Bud,” as we called him, was to wonder why he was left alive to bear the torch, when so many equally deserving men no longer had that opportunity.
This theme is transcendent. When one reads any book that relies heavily on interviews of survivors, the agonizing question “Why me?” practically bleeds through the pages. It is a powerful theme in all of historian Adam Makos’s books. In Spearhead, Clarence and the other soldiers in the tank divisions that led the attack into Germany in 1944 and 1945 are tormented by those who are left behind.[iv] In Devotion, men who fought and survived the Battle of Chosin Reservoir were haunted by those left in the snow-covered mountains of North Korea.[v] In A Higher Call, Charlie Brown remembers many times when the bunks of fallen airmen would lay empty, only to be silently packed up, and the bunk filled by another boy who may not last past the next raid.[vi] So, like the revolving door of airmen in a B-17 bomber barracks, the list goes on, and on throughout American history. Okinawa. Omaha Beach. Vietnam. Baghdad. Kabul.
McCrea addresses this question at the end of the poem, when he wrote:
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The simple fact is that the torchbearers of our society live every day of their lives with the intimate knowledge of the exact price of our freedom. They feel the impossible weight of history crying out and demanding that they keep the faith of those who sacrificed their lives. They see their faces. They hear the whispered last words over and over in their nightmares. Some watch the orphaned children of the fallen grow up and feel responsible. Others hate themselves because they can’t bear to see the orphans. Most, like Uncle Bud, just bear the torch in silence, hesitantly and awkwardly standing at events, wondering what they did to be worthy of being remembered at all. But they are worth remembering, because they come home, touch countless other people's lives in beautiful ways, and carry with them the memories of the ransom paid for the precious gift that is our freedom.
Uncle Bud loved dogs and horseshoes. He’d always ask about my dog when I went to his house. I'll never forget Sparkle, his border collie that would search the house systematically for any one of the dozens of toys she knew by name. Well into his 80’s, he’d beat a bunch of twenty-year-olds playing horseshoes, and I'd wonder how he did it. I have such good memories of Uncle Bud at the Fourth of July picnics that he and his wife held every year. But at the end of his life, the memories of the ghosts from his diaries came back to haunt him. The doctors had to use electric shock therapy to try to bolster his failing mind, which was literally collapsing under the weight of a torch he had carried for over half a century.
Uncle Bud was a hero not because he had the courage to die for his country, but because he had the courage to live after serving. He faithfully carried the torch passed to him. The torches may have a fire that burns those who carry them, but they also give light. Uncle Bud lived a good life, full of horseshoes, dogs, and annual Fourth of July picnics with family. He loved and was loved by dozens of family members around him. There are so many veterans carrying so many torches. This, and every Veteran’s Day, let’s take the time to remember, thank, and support the thousands of combat veterans who live every day courageously; faithfully carrying the torch passed to them. And perhaps, as we honor them and remember with them and celebrate their lives, we will help our heroes to embrace the answer to the question "Why me?"
[i] Mccrae, John, In Flanders Fields, December 8, 1915.
[ii] Struble, Howard. “Excerpts of journal entries.” Personal journal of Howard Struble, Unpublished, 1944, pp. Oct. 20th.
[iii] Struble, Howard. “Excerpts of journal entries.” Personal journal of Howard Struble, Unpublished, 1944, pp. Sept. 21st.
[iv] Makos, Adam. Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.
[v] Makos, Adam. Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice. New York: Ballantine Books, 2015.
[vi] Makos, Adam, and Larry Alexander. A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-torn Skies of World War II. London: Penguin, 2013.
Are we allowed to be either in today's multicultural society? In his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden observes that recent trends in fundamentalist movements have “coopted the use of the word ‘Christian’ as an adjective.”[i] Marsden is making the point that since the rise of the Religious Right, and the anti-secular movement that has moved throughout evangelical circles since the 1980’s, there has been an increasing movement to label or claim certain aspects of culture and society as being defined by a uniquely “Christian” set of characteristics. So today, I want to consider the claim that America was founded as a “Christian nation.”
As Marsden noted, to label our country as a “Christian nation” is a radically different claim than to argue that it was a nation of Christian people. Attaching religious attributes to a particular person is completely reasonable, even in our postmodern society. It may be perceived by many as a demeaning statement, but nobody would argue that a person cannot be or should be legally restricted from being a “Christian man” or “Christian woman.” In the modern academic and popular debate about the founding principles of our nation, it is necessary to understand that the values and principles of the men that we call “Founders” were not always the same as the collective values encapsulated in the Constitution. If we are not very careful with how we use the word “Christian” in this debate, we allow a tremendous semantic advantage to those who seemingly claim that Christian values have no place in our pluralistic society. Let me be clear, we are not a Christian nation, but we are a nation founded by Christians who expected that those who followed them would also be allowed to be, and even protected from government interference of being, Christian men and women.
Almost to a man, the Founders were Christian men. Even oft referred to Founders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were, at the very least, public Christians who employed Christian activities like prayers, even (and perhaps especially) as public figures employing their Constitutionally protected rights of freedom of speech and religion. Thomas Paine’s most famous work, Common Sense, incudes an entire section arguing against monarchy based on Biblical texts in Judges and 1 Samuel.[ii] Even if Paine was an atheist, he employed Biblical arguments to appeal to Christian individuals whom he was attempting to convince of the merits of republican government.
What is actually being debated most often is not whether or not America is a Christian nation, but whether or not America is a nation founded by Christians, who being informed by their Christian values, created a pluralistic society that respects everyone’s right to choose their religion. It is common belief among Christian sects, and even more particularly among evangelicals, that the Christianity is a relationship between God and an individual, and that this relationship is personal, and should not be achieved coercively by another person or group. In other words, the idea that each person is free to choose their own religious belief is utterly and totally consistent with evangelical Christian values. This principle is captured beautifully in the first line of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom which opens “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free. . .”[iii] It isn’t coincidental that the principle of freedom of religion is derived from an explicitly Christian perspective.
When Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists[iv] advocating for the “wall of separation of Church and State” he was referring to an established state religion. This is obvious by his capitalization of both “Church” and “State.” He argued that the government should in no way force any individual to act in a way that violates their beliefs. Jefferson, then President of the United States, concluded the letter by “reciprocat[ing] your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man. . .” This is just one of a multitude of examples of the belief that while government should not force an individual to participate in any religious observance or practice (or penalize them for choosing not to), it also cannot prevent a citizen who is a part of that government, even the President himself, from expressing his religious beliefs, even when acting as a representative of said government. That this example comes at the conclusion of the very letter which is supposed to establish the precedent of public figures not expressing their personal beliefs is the very definition of "irony."
Unfortunately, in the popular debate today, it is often argued that since America was never intended to be a Christian nation, it also cannot be a nation for Christians. It is argued that the wall of separation of Church and State ought to also create a similar wall among the beliefs of those who are both private citizens and public servants. In other words, the words of the Constitution meant to protect all citizens from government interference of their religious beliefs are instead used to dictate to public servants what role their religious beliefs will play in their lives. Even more troubling in several recent court cases gaining national attention, this prohibition against allowing individuals to be Christians has extended to all aspects of their public lives, including their businesses. It has become an establishment of atheism.
The Constitution was meant to be a-religious, not atheistic. During the debate about the specific semantics of the 1st Amendment undertaken by the First Federal Congress[v], Peter Silvester (NY) was concerned that it might be construed as a positive mandate to abolish religion altogether. Benjamin Huntington (CT) echoing Silvester's concerns, feared that the anti-establishment clause would have the effect of giving special status to those who had no religion at all if not worded carefully. What cannot be found anywhere is the fear that government officials would act in ways consistent with their religious beliefs; it was taken for granted that they would. To the contrary, the fear on the part of representatives like Silvester and Huntington was the opposite: somehow an amendment meant to prevent government from interfering in people’s religious beliefs would instead force some form of religion (including possibly atheism) on those who did not want to participate. What can be easily seen in the transcription of this debate is the painstaking attention to semantics, in order to develop the exact terminology that would prevent establishment of a national religion while simultaneously preventing a misconception that the government is supposed to be set against religion. The Founders realized the critical difference between having a Christian nation and a nation of Christians. They explicitly rejected the first notion but took great pains to preserve the second. Perhaps it is time that we, likewise, insist that the government make “no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; not especially, but definitely including Christianity and atheism.
[i] Marsden, G. (1998-06-11). The Arguments for Silence. In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. : Oxford University Press.
[ii] Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Philadelphia: W&T Bradford, 1776. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/147/147-h/147-h.htm.
[iii] Jefferson, Thomas. Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. State of Virginia, 1786. https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/thomas-jefferson.
[iv] Jefferson, Thomas. "Letter to the Danbury Baptists." Library of Congress. Last modified January 1, 1802. https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html.
[v] The Congressional Register, 15 August 1789, in CHARLENE BANGS BICKFORD, KENNETH R. BOWLING, and HELEN E. VEIT, eds., Documentary History of the First Federal Congress 1789-1791, Vol. XI, Debates in the House of Representatives--First Session: June - September 1789 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 1260—1282.
Today we remember the day that, in the words of president George W. Bush, “freedom was attacked.” I remember the day like it was yesterday, or at least, that’s how I feel about it. Yet today, as I consider the day that changed the course of a nation and set us on a path toward two costly wars, I can’t help but wonder how best to remember that tragic day. Even more importantly, I am haunted by Gandhi’s admonition to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” and what that call means for me personally.
As I reflect on my initial response to 9/11, I remember a short period of confusion followed by a significantly longer period of anger. Initially, the attack brought us together as a nation, and brought out our best selves. We weren’t worried about revenge; we were worried about our neighbor. We grasped how fleeting freedom truly was and saw that it had enemies in parts of the world that many of us couldn’t even locate on a map. We were patriots, we were neighbors, we were family. Oh to just live in that moment!
But complacency and politics very quickly hijacked our altruism, and nationalism quickly swept our nation. Nationalism swept me away. After all, my nation was attacked, and we had to respond. Unfortunately, if history can teach us any lesson in this area, it’s that nationalism gets ugly. Nationalism doesn’t defend freedom, nationalism steals freedom from everyone, including the very ones who are caught in its thrall. We lost sight of the reality that we, in the words of Henley’s Invictus, are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls only so long as we choose to be. And like a vast majority of Americans, I allowed something else to chart my course.
I was excited when we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, we would execute righteous vengeance on those who had perpetrated the invasion of my freedom. An eye for an eye. In the process, we would also bring freedom to new parts of the world. The shock and awe of the glorious and righteous campaign of the American-led military coalition would pale in comparison to the beacon of freedom that we would bring, like Lady Liberty’s torch burning bright to the darkest parts of the world.
I should have known better.
If history teaches us anything, it is that freedom is an idea, not a country. The mightiest armies in the world have been totally incapable of defeating ideas. In fact, when mighty militaries attempt to clash with an idea, it is always the army that loses. The British Empire learned this lesson the hard way in the American War for Independence, when the ideas espoused by the Declaration of Independence defeated the empire upon which the sun did not set. Almost two centuries later, the American military suffered perhaps an even more humiliating defeat in the jungles of Vietnam, when it attempted to defeat communism. You simply cannot defeat an idea with a gun.
But this would surely be different, wouldn’t it? After all, America was on a righteous mission to eradicate the specter of terrorism from civilized society. And here is a reality about fighting for freedom: Freedom can never be bestowed by man; it can only be defended. In the words of the Declaration, our rights are the gift of the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. They are unalienable (or inseparable) from us. I do not have the authority to give another his or her freedom, because I am not his or her creator. I can defend my own freedom; it is my birthright. I can help another in the defense of his or her freedom; it belongs to them. But I can never give that which was never mine to give.
Another lesson of history. During the Vietnam War, the American military went to support a slightly less tyrannical government in the supposed defense of freedom. We paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for our arrogance. And in the end, we didn’t even earn the gratitude of those we were supposedly helping, nor should we have. We devastated the lives and livelihoods of the South Vietnamese. We supported a repressive and totally incompetent military dictatorship that was despised by its own people. Over 58,000 American soldiers never came home at all, and many thousands more came home physically bearing physical and mental scars that meant that their lives would never be the same. We paid a terrible price in freedom’s name, but on tyranny’s account.
I can’t help but wonder that we haven’t done the exact same thing in our current war on terrorism, yet another idea that has proven to be bullet-proof. We’ve lost about 7,000 soldiers in these costly wars, with thousands more injured. Not only that, but in the time since our involvement in these wars began, the suicide rate among veterans aged 18-34 has almost doubled (US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 2016 National Suicide Data Report). ISIS has claimed responsibility for the 6,000 annual suicides per year among US veterans, and one cannot afford to dismiss this claim out of hand. Even if we only gave them credit for the increase that has transpired, this would make the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars as costly as Vietnam!
Iraq barely exists as a nation anymore, its existence more or less relegated to old world maps, and the US military (and countless Afghanistan civilians) continues to pay in blood for the support of the Afghan government that, like South Vietnam in the 1960’s and 70’s, doesn’t even vaguely resemble the Western ideal of freedom. A recent Guardian article warns that if the US were to leave, Afghanistan would descend into civil war. Sound familiar?
And now my focus comes back to me, after all, I have to be the change I want to see in the world, right? How do I fight an idea like terrorism if a gun has proven to be less than worthless? I would submit that we must fight an idea like terrorism with a better idea, like freedom. If “darkness cannot drive out darkness. . .[and] hate cannot drive out hate,” and “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” maybe I need to change how I’m fighting the war on terrorism.
I believe that the answer to the question lies in the daily ritual that is performed at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. Each day, a single rose is lain next to the name of each person whose birthday it would have been that day. These roses serve as a daily reminder of the lives of those who were taken that day. Their lives may have been stolen, but not their freedom; at least not automatically. What gives our lives meaning is the legacies we leave and this is something, like freedom, that can be given, but never truly taken away. Unlike the empty skyline of Lower Manhattan, the memories of the men and women who died that day continue to soar ever higher in the memories of those who loved them. It is their memory that we should be fighting to preserve.
So the real tragedy of 9/11 is not that our nation was attacked. The real tragedy is that I allowed my anger in the aftermath of that attack to cause me to forget the men and women whose lives were lost, and the families that would never be the same. I believed that a nation, rather than a memory, must be defended. I compounded my own error by sentencing tens of thousands of American families to the same loss. The wars that I supported have also robbed thousands of Afghani and Iraqi families of the same basic human right. Freedom was not the victim of terrorist plots, because our freedom was never theirs to control. Freedom was the casualty of my anger; of the nationalist wolf disguised in my self-righteous patriotism.
Darkness, revenge, and hatred will never suffice to combat the menace of terrorism, but maybe love will. And so, to the families of all who lost loved ones in towers, battlefields of the Middle East, devastated towns of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the silent ghosts that haunted the minds of those who never truly came back from those places, I ask your forgiveness. And I promise that I will never forget you, and that I will fight to preserve the legacies left by those who are gone from our lives, but never from our hearts. And I believe that if we do this, we will finally rise again to freedom’s defense, like we did in those days immediately after 9/11, the days when we were free to love.
Nathan Gilson is a Social Studies Teacher in South Carolina with over 10 years of experience in the public school systems. He has taught US and World History courses, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in History from Liberty University.