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As Long as We Remember...

June 8, 2007

Little Noted Nor Long Remembered

Roy Meachum

In this part of the United States, everyone should know the source of the words above. When dedicating the new national cemetery on the site of recent bloody carnage the sitting president said: "The world will little note nor long remember..."

Abraham Lincoln's words at Gettysburg make up arguably the most famous speech in American history. Not incidentally, some of his thoughts were put on paper at what was then South Market Street's Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station. In those pre-helicopter days even a president could get stuck waiting for trains, this one connected Frederick to Pennsylvania.

And not so incidentally Mr. Lincoln was wrong.

No one forgets his definition on that occasion that the United States must preserve "government by the people, for the people, with the people." But who can recall his trip from Washington was not to celebrate the Union's great success in the battle that culminated July 4, 1863. He was there to commemorate the dead, as I said.

Similarly the 63rd anniversary of D-Day this week was noted, if at all, for opening what became World War II's Crusade in Europe. In Carentan, near Omaha Beach stands the American version of Canadian Col. John McCrae's classic memorial to World War I British dead:

"In Flanders field, the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row..."

For years after Hitler's deserved death and the capitulation of Japan's imperial army, a Carentan-based Army graves registration unit pulled corpses out of Normandy's beaches; they were processed, identified and laid to rest in the French field where no poppies grew, not the February I visited.

In 1948, what was the "old country" for most Americans stood divided, east under communism and the west staked out by Britain, France and the United States. World War III appeared imminent when the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin in a move to grab all Germany, which London, Paris and Washington vowed would never happen.

The trip to Carentan happened on the eve of the Berlin Airlift's May launch. The most pleasant memory from traveling out to Normandy's tip was the rough-crust bread that tore the mouth's roof. No relief came from drinking Calvados, the local apple jack.

Nothing about that night's show by the European Special Services Orchestra for the "graves diggers" stays in my mind. We bussed back to Paris the next morning under a gray sky made more miserable by the biting Normandy winds. I declined a tour to view the graves.

Memory was still fresh from five years before when Sgt. Roy N. Meachum, my father, had been buried in Alexandria's (Louisiana) National Cemetery. On a November day, when his former unit was landing in North Africa, I held back tears until the Catholic chaplain came over and embraced me, graveside.

In the long years since, including decades in journalism, I have looked on the dead without reacting: in funeral parlors and on the street. But something tears my insides when I consider the rows of crosses and stars in overabundance, like Arlington, which I visited several months back.

Marshall Soghoian was not a combat casualty; the colorful Armenian in my life lived on, nearing 80 when he passed. We worked in the American Forces Network house in Berlin's Dahlem in Airlift times. On the day his ashes were slipped into an Arlington wall, I walked among the cemetery's stones; some honored war dead.

For one month shy of seven years, I was government property, subject to dispatch and recall by unseen faces inside the Pentagon. I had no more control over my life and death than those that lie on the Virginia estate, which once belonged to Robert E. Lee's family.

To say they invoke sympathy does not begin to describe the response I have for those fallen in their country's service, like the young men in Carentan. But in their cases, I understood. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy entered a conspiracy that resulted in Japanese dive bombers hitting Pearl Harbor. America's choice was to fight or face being conquered.

In public memory the Korean War remains largely forgotten because it represents a stuttering step in this nation's march to reaffirm status as a "super" power. The U.S.-led coalition did not win; it was a draw and with a much smaller country. But those dead sleep in peace, all of them; they knew they had done the "right thing."

Those who suffered the great cold to fight on the Korean peninsula were the last lives lost with a great majority of their fellow Americans cheering.

While I supported the war in Vietnam at the time, I have come to realize it had little to do with this country's leadership role among "free" nations. We assumed France's colonial role for intimidating and killing in the areas Paris termed Indo-China: today's Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

It was a war not winnable. The people stood aside and, in time, many - if not most - backed the Viet Cong to win. They were right but not because there was anything basically wrong with America's approach. Not all the machines and not all the young lives could prevail in an atmosphere that had been in a war for over 20 years. Where Washington saw a rising communism, the people themselves believed it was time to enjoy their national pride. And that's what they have done.

With the exception of UN-sponsored military missions, Americans ever since Vietnam have fought and died in wars started by their government, especially in Iraq.

When I read the casualty lists in Metro newspapers I am bereft. In a curious way the dead are more fortunate than their seriously wounded comrades, many condemned to live out their days in horrible conditions.

As we learned from the Walter Reed scandal, they receive treatments and benefits that reflect the embarrassment they present to officials who lavished reassurances that invading Iraq would be relatively cost-free, in human lives as well as to the treasury.

No conflict since World War II has echoed the sort of lyricism Mr. Lincoln invoked at Gettysburg and in his second inaugural address:

"(L)et us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

The U.S. government simply falls short, in every area. Most of all, we fail to meet Mr. Lincoln's injunction at the Pennsylvania cemetery's dedication that "we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain."

The principle is violated each human life put in harm's way to justify a political decision that fails to serve Americans' common good.

As we commemorate World War II's great triumph on D-Day, we dishonor the dead on Normandy's beaches by sending their grandchildren to die in Iraq's civil wars.

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