On Memorial Day we honor the men and women who have died in the military service of our country. Sometimes, it is hard to get your mind to take in the magnitude of the numbers. The statistics vary, but according to some sources, by January, 2007, over 1,200,000 American soldiers had died in all our wars from the Revolution up to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We all know some of the figures: over 600,000 died on both sides in the Civil War; 405,000 in World War II; 36,000 in Korea; 58,000 in Vietnam; 383 in the Gulf War. We do not have the final tallies from Iraq and Afghanistan yet, but to date we have lost 4,387 in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) and 1,075 in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).
I still remember vividly the day in June of 1969 when I opened the now famous issue of Life magazine [June 27, 1969] containing a photo spread of the 242 American soldiers killed in one week of that war. The photo essay was called “Faces of the American Dead”, and by focusing on one week’s casualties it made the extent of our loss more understandable and thus more painful. Numbers were one thing. Two hundred forty-two photographs were another.
Something like that helped me understand our current losses this spring. Elizabeth Samet, Professor of English at West Point, published an article in The New Republic this March which described her teacher student relationship with one soldier who was killed in Afghanistan in February. Many military service academy faculty develop lifelong correspondences with their graduates, especially the ones who go into combat. As Samet says,
"In such correspondence, one finds, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the epic growth of the soldier’s mind when it is engaged in an unusual enterprise: teaching an Afghan unit to fire old Soviet artillery with a manual written in Russian, serving in the military police at a detention facility in the wake of Abu Ghraib, or leading a company of paratroopers on missions through Zabul Province.
"Then one day, maybe, even though you have known from the start that this is one of the possible endings to the story, you find yourself unable to compute the fact that the last message you sent will go unanswered. Several days later you sit in a pew staring at a flag-draped coffin that holds the remains of a man not yet 30. A coffin surrounded by a wife and a mother and a father and a sister, who also wears the uniform, and by a lot of other young men who aren’t yet 30. Men who call him--repeatedly and forcefully--their best friend. Men permitted to grieve unabashedly in this place as they struggle through their eulogies but who suffer invisibly terrible things elsewhere."
So, as a way of honoring all those who have died in the service of our country, let us listen a bit to what one West Point professor has to tell us about the interior life of just one of her students who has died in combat this year:
“Department of Defense News Release No. 093-10, posted on February 3, 2010, announced that two soldiers, Captain Daniel P. Whitten, 28, of Grimes, Iowa, and Private First Class Zachary G. Lovejoy, 20, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, “died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked their vehicle with an improvised explosive device Feb. 2 in Zabul province, Afghanistan. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.” Capt. Whitten commanded C Company; Pfc. Lovejoy was one of his paratroopers.
“Dan Whitten graduated from West Point in 2004. He was my student. Together, we read everything from Montaigne to The Maltese Falcon; we studied His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, and Night and Fog. He was a kind of student I always hope to find in class: someone who keeps the rest of us honest. He was direct, impatient with muddled thinking, yet he delivered his arguments with such wit and humor and from a place of such scrupulousness that no one could justly resent a correction. He wrote a thesis with one of my colleagues on beauty and elegance in scientific theory, but he could be equally engaging on the subject of Braveheart (a film about which we disagreed) or Billy Madison (about which we were in absolute accord). And he made me laugh, which is something I note fewer and fewer people are able to do. He was buried Friday, February 12, 2010, in the West Point cemetery.
“In the years since his graduation, Dan had become a correspondent--someone whose messages I welcomed, whose insights I valued. When I asked what he needed, he would say he needed nothing: “No specific needs or desires right now, but I’ll let you know if I lose/break anything.” When I asked him how he was, he would say, “[L]ife is good. Except the whole Afghanistan thing.”
“In one of those strange coincidences that make the Army seem small, another former student was one of Dan’s lieutenants in Afghanistan. After Dan died, the lieutenant told me he came to understand more about leadership in a few months with Capt. Whitten than at any passage in his life. Dan had shared with me his observations on the lieutenant’s progress, and I could see the care he took with him. The specificity and humanity of his observations suggested the kind of attention he paid all the paratroopers he commanded. From past experience, I knew, too, the equanimity with which Dan greeted setbacks, as well as successes. That quality must have helped prepare his men for even this eventuality.
“Dan balanced what all thoughtful officers must learn how to balance: in his words, “day to day business and improving the lives of [his] paratroopers” on the one hand, and on the other hand reflecting, in moments that allowed, “on the purpose, conduct, and endstate of this conflict.” In his last e-mail to me, he wrote of becoming “a little more restless,” as a man with an active, conscientious mind is apt to become when he finds himself in a foreign, hostile place--in what a Marine lieutenant I once met at Walter Reed called, while staring at what was left of his leg, “a sea of variability,” and tries to keep everyone else afloat and swimming. . . .
“In his West Point yearbook entry, where most cadets include a paragraph, customarily penned by their friends, full of inside jokes, struggles, or triumphs, Dan offered only one cryptic line: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” It comes, of course, from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land--from the poem’s first section, “The Burial of the Dead.” Dan was there before us.”[ Excerpts from “Man of Letters” by Elizabeth D. Samet. TNR March 16, 2010]
Sometimes it is hard to get our minds around the numbers. This glimpse into the interior life of Captain Daniel P. Whitten should remind us that the men and women who sacrifice so much to defend us are real, complex, precious, unique human beings who sacrifice more than we can ever know. The numbers do not tell their stories. Only we can do that. Let us spend this Memorial Day remembering, honoring, and giving thanks. Let us pray:
Almighty God, in whose hands are the living and the dead: We give you thanks for all your servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant them mercy and the light of your presence; and give us such a living sense of your righteous will, that the work you have begun in them may be perfected in us. In your holy name we pray. Amen.