In one of the most searing passages in his novel about civilization’s wounds caused by WWI, A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway wrote:
“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice. . . . We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
Hemingway left out one set of “concrete names”: those of people.
Surely the simple power of names accounts for much of the massive emotion inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington over the last three decades. Yet surely nearly every good-sized American town has its own smaller-scale version of this: an honor roll of local fallen heroes. More than a few of us walk by these memorials daily, paying no attention not only on most days but even on Memorial Day.
I thought of this after reading a letter to the editor this morning by a fellow member of my parish. He wrote of how a dozen of his classmates in the local high school had died in combat in WWII. I thought of them as I snapped a picture of this Memorial plaque just outside the City Hall of my hometown, Englewood, N.J. Many surviving World War II vets, like my fellow parishioner, are now in their late 80s or even 90s. Their sorrow on days such as today is surely heightened by the thought of the years of joy that their friends never got to experience.
The thought is overwhelming in commemorations like today’s: Just how much the fallen lost so that the rest of us, going forward for generations, might gain. Learning the names of the dead is laudable. Discovering the basic life facts of even one fallen brave one would be even better.