On this Memorial Day, I’ve been pondering the problem of gratitude, not only for my children (the two still at home) but for myself. Millions of soldiers and their families sacrificed much, even their lives, and my family and I have gained from their losses. Their losses are real, and often heart-breaking, and I cannot read a story like In the Name of the Sons without pain, and a little guilt.
I know they suffered and I and those I love gained much (and much we take for granted) from their suffering, but I find it hard to feel gratitude, or to feel it as strong as I think I should. But it’s not, entirely, my fault.
People raised when and where I was were taught that wars were expressions of national self-interest or the designs of the powerful and that any national hero or patriotic story could be exposed as at best a mixture of good and evil, if not an act of self-interest or desire, when it wasnt simply made up by the public myth-makers. The Constitution may have spoken of several freedoms, but these were limited in application to certain people and applied with favoritism for the rich and powerful. We actually read something in a social studies class by Charles A. Beard.
As Walter Benjamin famously put it, There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. That was the mind we were taught to have. Slavery in the new United States was not a failure of the men who wrote the Constitution and of their descendents, but evidence that the whole enterprise was at root a sham or a con. George Washington was really this, Thomas Jefferson really that.
Growing up in a college town in New England, my peers and I got all this years before most children would have done, though eventually this mind must have spread to the corn fields of the Midwest and the forests and fields of the rural south. We were taught cynicism as a form of sophistication, of seeing through what other people ignorantly accepted. (Though I suspect, thinking back, that many of our teachers may have been less dogmatic than they appear in memory, but being adolescents, my friends and I missed this and in fact the more leftwing we were, the more our teachers praised us.)
We learned to think like Benjamin, and that was not a good thing. But not entirely bad either. I dont regret the training in questioning the public stories, because many of them were exactly what my teachers said they were. We homeschool our younger two children, and we are always looking for good books free of the typical contemporary prejudices and predilections.
Yet many of the old books are startlingly naïve, or just one step up from propaganda. America is almost perfect, its every policy enlightened, its every foreign adventure undertaken solely for the good of others. No American Indian was, for example, ever mistreated. Anything impossible to whitewash, like racial segregation, is simply left out. The story, though often written by ardent Christians, is an alternative to the Christian one, and one in which the Christian story has been absorbed and put to alien ends.
My childhood training prepared me for Christianity, when I first saw it clearly, especially for its moral realism, which I think I first saw, though I didnt then know it was a Christian work, when reading The Lord of the Rings at twelve. Everyone is a sinner, no motive is ever unmixed, the ego and desire always intrude, yes, all true, yet that it is not the whole story: men created in the image of God can be heroes and even saints, but a twist that heroism and sanctity may not look like any the world recognizes, including the world represented by the books I just described.
My teachers had taught me to see behind our societys mythology, and that mythology included secularism in all its forms, conservative as well as liberal. They prepared me to see the world as composed of two Cities and to give each its due, to be able to say “I am the kings good servant, but Gods first,” as St. Thomas More also famously said.
Yet, child of my childhood schooling as I am, Im still disturbed by my inability to feel moved as the old men march by in the Memorial Day parade. They are a kind of public memory, and as Robert Wilken writes in Keeping the Commandments , these incarnate public memories
are not abstractions, but concrete testimonies to the lives and convictions of those who have gone before us. As John Lukacs has reminded us, there is recorded history and also remembered history. The things we remember in our common life quietly convey a precious inheritance that helps us keep faith with the dead and form, in unspoken ways, the sensibilities and attitudes, not to say hopes and dreams, of those who will follow us. There is no greater betrayal than to impoverish a generation yet unborn by willful acts of amnesia. What we honor in our public life has a bearing on how we live as individuals.
Im not sure what the answer is to feeling too little gratitude on the day we ought to remember those to whom we owe much, except to follow the traditional Christian instruction to practice what you believe, and pray that the feeling of belief follows. Not that it matters much if it does. You cant gin up feelings on demand, but feelings don’t really matter.
I have thought of one thing to do, since my Church teaches us to pray for the departed: go to the cemetery at some regular interval and walk along the graves, praying for each soldier or sailor whose grave I find. They may have no one to pray for them. It is a little thing, a tiny investment of time, but it is something.
And I can applaud the old men in their uniforms as they march by. Another small thing, but at least they’ll hear it.