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Eulogy for Memorial Day

Horace’s lyrics

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen’s Lyrics

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

John Lennon’s lyrics

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…


Rome’s peasant poet, Horace, contemplated the prospect of death in war with rustically virtuous equanimity.  Then chemical science turned 20th century battle into a killing field shrouded in poisonous clouds of mass slaughter.   And, not long after, nuclear science produced the mushroom cloud that threatened to do the same for the entire world.

The prospect of death in war no longer resembles the manly, sporting contests of fortitude that to this day evoke sympathetic feelings of courage, triumph and all enduring will.  “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” as the famous sports show blurb once put it.  But for many, victory could not ennoble the agony depicted in firsthand accounts from the barbed, entrenched, deep catacombs of World War I.  The gross, dehumanizing horrors of World War I were poignantly individualized in those experiences, and seared into the living memories of those whose patience lasted until the deadly thunder ceased.   For them, the world’s once pastel, patriotic colors were forever darkened by the stark contrast between the almost jolly rituals of war’s beginnings and the grotesque reality revealed to the chosen acolytes of its inner sanctum long, long before it ends.

The threat of nuclear extinction erased the easy distinction between those acolytes and the general congregation of humanity.  All now stand attendance in the antechamber of war’s probable inner circle (CEP) of sacrifice.  All see themselves victims upon the altar.  All stand in the zest removed foreshadowing that shows the sorry, sagging wrinkles of Wilfred Owen’s old, decrepit lie.   John Lennon’s nihilistic anthem speaks the heart of many in the generations born and raised in that foreshadowing.  In that world of grayed out colors, Horace’s rustic patriotism seems a harbinger of dead moon worlds in black and white, whereupon the heart longs for the rich, spring comfort of saturated color, wishing not at all to dwell upon the contrast, but only to be totally absorbed by life’s experience, undisturbed by guilty shadows or vigilant reflection.

Though Lennon’s song invites us to “imagine there’s no heaven”, it’s the contrast of heaven and hell that he really seeks to eliminate.  For some, this is the anthem of the future, a future that, among other things, implies the end of these memorial days.  For on this day we are invited to decorate the graves of those who died in war, especially remembering the ultimate sacrifice that proved beyond words the truth of their devotion, the gift beyond measure they were willing to bestow upon those who live after them.  But if the only fruit of war is horror, and its only flower a bloom of stinking death, with what garlands shall we wreath the gravestones, with what words wax lyrical about the honorable extinction of lives, too filled with promise to be more than unfulfilled in hope?

Except we ignore or annihilate the significance of their sacrifice, we cannot truly remember them without remembering the good they stood and died for, or the evil that cost them their lives.  But in the world of Lennon’s sensually triumphant nihilism, we are bidden not to look beyond sensation and the mere sentiment of our existence.  We are therefore bidden not to reflect upon the meaning and the cause for which they sacrificed themselves, the standard by which they were bound to live and therefore bound to die if need be.  We are forbidden to remember that not all such standards represent the same reverence for life, peace and the all sharing brotherhood of man Lennon dreamily contemplates.

Forces are now mightily at work in our world that pretend, perhaps even to themselves, that they are taking us to Lennon’s place beyond good and evil.  It is a place where Presidents give press conferences without flags; where lands are shared without borders; where without the exercise of power, humankind has defeated the very idea of warfare; and where all the colors of the rainbow are maintained and celebrated, without difference, judgment or distinction.

There’s the rub.  For where one color is not distinguished from another, there may be light but there is no rainbow.  Where one place is not distinct from another, there may be land, but there is no place called home.  Beyond good and evil, there may be pleasant and unpleasant things, but there is no reason to prefer one to the other, indeed no reason at all that is a ground for choice.

Peace there may be in the one, united world of Lennon’s vain imagining, but it is the peace of life without reason, without choice, without deliberate purpose, and therefore without the unique, individual conscience that is the hallmark of our humanity.

It took some decades after the Civil War before Americans contrived to designate one day on which to honor our war dead, regardless of which side they fought for.  That reflected the moral reality from which John Lennon’s nihilism only seems to offer some escape.  Can we really see a community in death of those who fought in defense of freedom, and those who fought for a union imposed by suppressing it?  Can we really see a living community between those who died to end the blight of human slavery, and those who fought for the right to impose its chains upon their fellow men?  Can the same flag that flew from the slave ship’s mast and Ft. Sumter’s battlements mean anything in common between a dedication to freedom that permits slavery and an opposition to slavery that demands the curtailment of freedom?

It can mean that both reject the vision of a world in which human being is lost in subjection to the materialistic currents of pleasure and unreflective passion.  It can mean that both envision a world in which humanity still embraces the idea of freedom, for all the burdens of guilt and vigilance it imposes upon our primitive longing contentedly to bask like lizards in the simple sun of life’s sensations.  It can mean that both insist on remembering the fallen and fallible champions in all our wars, and do so precisely because the truest protest against the gross, dehumanizing reality of war is to hold fast, in spite of it, to the responsibility for conscientious choice that is the inescapable fate of those willing to answer for the human vocation.

I admit that my Christian faith may give me greater equanimity as I do so.  Why?  Because it keeps from me the burden of believing that man must be the matter and maker of some paradise of his own creation.  It’s easier to accept the human vocation once the carpenter’s son has stilled the false ambition to be among the masons of some new pyramid of Babel.   I know that in God’s good time I will hear a voice I already know calling me by the name more truly my own than any other.  Answering to that name, I will come into a place of peace beyond Lennon’s imagining or my own.  And among others waiting to greet me, I will find and know again for the first time, the ones who lie no longer in the graves of honored dead because they were willing to die in a cause the Creator God has honored with the name of justice.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • John September 4, 2010, 11:30 pm

    Is ‘ruling class’ right for America?

    Many worthy and thought provoking comments. I think we are all on the same page or book at least. My thought is that God has actually held the walls of evil from collapsing our land for so long it seems now we have arrived at the following place. “A house divided cannot stand”. If you can imagine an “A” framed house starting with a crack at the top many, many years ago as Satan never wanted America to succeed. Then over much time the crack became so apparent that the left began to be able to pull down the left wall faster, and the right kept pushing up the right wall, as well as using a pulley to pull the left wall back up, while in the house mighty spiritual battle goes on. Thus the American people have held there rightful place as “We the People” in mind and spirit for the most part. However, I would have to believe we never went off course or were taken by corrupted power intentional or no, in 1787, 1861, 1870, 1913,1933, and so forth. To me the solution in our great constitution is that We the People have the power and ability to abolish the current corrupt government, and rebuild the one our forefathers intended. I say that in all sincerity because if The USA has been incorporated as a nation as long as it has you have to ask what, when, why, how, etc…Much more to say or share, but will close for now.

  • Dawg em August 24, 2010, 6:39 pm

    I am so glad to be attending Professor Keyes’ classes on American Civics. While I consider the term “ruling class” as a pejorative, I’m certain their egos get a lift from such terminology.

    On the other hand, I cannot see a time, ever, where they will be referred to as “intellectuals”. At least, not with a straight face.

  • Tom August 24, 2010, 5:10 pm

    The line “elitists placing WMDs” gave me a thought…….. the reaction to the arrogance of the Democrats could swing the political pendulum farther right than we should go. Could we be beguiled into empowering stealth elitists on the right, who have the conservative vocabulary, but are just another face doing the work of the globalist marxists.

    We need to elect non-politicians, that have no career goals other than getting back to their pre-election lives after cleaning the nations house.

  • Joel robertson August 24, 2010, 1:24 pm

    I think the use of the term ‘ruling class’ is a term used to show 2 things.

    First that the Democrats and Republicans have merged into an unconstitutional leadership style. Certainly neither the Democrat or Republicans by themselves could not be the ruling class. This term only makes sense if they are interchangeable–taking turns leading us down the same destructive paths.

    The second purpose of the term might be to demostate the clear unconstituional nature of such a thing ever happening in a representative republic. The term challenges us to rise up in a ‘revolution’ of voting to bring in a new quality of leadership. Anyone who understands and loves this country would immediately see that such a ruling class is unacceptable for the america we know and love.

    • Dawg em August 24, 2010, 6:25 pm

      If I understand Dr. Keyes correctly I believe his point is not one solely of semantics. It may show an intellectual surrender, or acceptance, if you will, that in America there is a class system. This seems to be true, whether or not we wish it to be so.
      While I agree with both points you’ve made, wouldn’t words such as oligarchs, tyrants, dictators or even fascists, be more appropriate? Words have meaning and can be used to either obfuscate or obviate the subject.
      For those who are paying attention, such as people like yourself, the term helps to “label” those who love titles and ensure we stay attuned to who the real enemy is.

      • loyaltoliberty August 24, 2010, 6:52 pm

        As I read your comment a clarifying thought occurred to me that might be helpful. The word ‘class’ refers to a group set apart by some common traits or characteristics. The American people are a class defined by their God given equality and unalienable rights. As members of that class their consent is supposed to be the basis for the just powers of government. The Constitution, speaking with the voice of the people, distributes and structures those powers for the U.S. government, i.e., gives the rules for its operation. But if Americans accept the notion that they are dealing with a political ruling class, it means that they are not the ruling class, i.e., the source of the rules by which government operates. By applying the term to others, they tacitly accept that they no longer rule the government, no longer possess the sovereignty, no longer govern themselves. Does it make sense to describe the battle in terms that imply that it is already lost?

  • Mike August 24, 2010, 10:10 am

    Well said. The people who govern should be representatives of the people. For our founding documents said Government of the people, by the people and for the people.

    I find the song “Mornign has broken” to be inspirational and to remind me of God’s love.

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