On Flanders fields: What have we bought with the blood of our war dead?

Why do we want to fight ISIS? What are our goals in Syria? Before we send Marines, Soldiers and Sailors to die, we owe them good answers.

On Flanders fields the poppies grow / Photo: Jim Picht
On Flanders fields the poppies grow / Photo: Jim Picht

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2015 – In May, 1915, a Canadian physician and poet, Maj. John McCrae, conducted a funeral for his friend and fellow Canadian, Lt. Alexis Helmer. Helmer had been killed by an exploding German shell in the second Battle of Ypres. McCrae was his commanding officer.

Lieutenant Alexis Helmer
Lt. Alexis Helmer

Poppies, an agricultural pest in Europe, flourish on disturbed ground like battlefields and hasty military cemeteries, so from the time of the Napoleonic wars, red poppies have been a symbol of men killed in battle. Moved by the death of his friend and the poppies around the cemetery at Flanders, McCrae penned one of the best-loved poems that we now associate with Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth and with Memorial Day in the United States.

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.

It remains a tradition, one much moved along by McCrae’s poem and more in the Commonwealth than in the U.S., to hand out red “remembrance poppies” on this day. Moved by the poem, American Moina Mitchell began a campaign to adopt the red poppy as the American Legion’s official symbol of Remembrance Day. Due to her efforts and those of Frenchwoman Anna Guerin, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig encouraged the sale of red poppies before Armistice Day, and the practice spread throughout the Commonwealth.

Other poems are closely associated with Memorial Day. One of the best known is the hymn, “God of Our Fathers,” written by Rudyard Kipling in 1897 as a poem, called “Recessional,” for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Kipling’s poem and McCrae’s are reminders of some things too easily forgotten by the rulers of an empire. First is that we owe a debt and an obligation to those who have died in our wars. It is up to us to give their sacrifice meaning by holding fast to the principles for which they died.

Second is that our battles and our power must serve a greater purpose. They must have a reason rooted in greater principles than the will to empire. If we fight for freedom and justice abroad, we must have and honor them at home, or eventually we and all that we stand for will be wiped away and forgotten.

Third is that power is ephemeral. However great our military and our empire, it will fall and be nothing. Our navies will vanish, our guns rust, our treasures return to the ground or be devoured by those who come after us. It isn’t simply in the inevitable nature of things that America will be a great power and a free nation. We can fall as quickly as we rose.

American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have died in conflicts large and small all over the world in almost every decade of our republic’s existence. Some have fought in wars of necessity, to create and preserve the nation when peace would have left tyranny intact. Others have died in wars of principle, in the service of freedom and the protection of people of other lands.

And some of our battles have been stupid, useless wastes of blood and treasure, fought for the ambitions of men and women who did little to deserve the loyalty and sacrifice of those who fought. But on Memorial Day, we remember the loyalty and the sacrifice, not those who squandered them. We honor those who died in all wars, without judging the wars they died in or those who sent them. But history will judge.

America and her principles will be judged. Our presidents and political leaders will be judged. Why did we fight? What did we fight for? Did our political leaders deserve the loyalty of those whose lives they spent to achieve their grand objectives?

These are thoughts for every day, not just Memorial Day. As we argue and debate about what to do in Ukraine and Syria, what to do about the Islamic State, Iran, North Korea, Russia and China, as we wonder who our enemies are and what we should do about them, we must remember the blood that has been spilled and that will be spilled, and demand that those debates are open and honest. We should never fight for slogans, glory or empire, or arm simply for the sake of power.

We must fight for principle, always. To fight for anything less is a breach of faith with the men and women of our armed forces. We must not break faith with those who die. Someday there will be no America, but only our legacy. Let that legacy include a humble and contrite heart, and let us never forget.


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