Dear Hearts Across the Seas: A Memorial Day Prayer

The following article by Pat Lang appeared in America magazine in 2006.

Patrick Lang      May 29, 2006

“For 14 hours yesterday, I was at work—teaching Christ to lift his cross by the numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”
Captain Wilfred Owen, The Manchesters 
Killed in Action, Nov. 4, 1918

This famous quotation from the work of the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen sums up both the awfulness and the beauty of a combat soldier’s life. It is particularly meaningful to those who have been given the chance to train and lead men in war. I came to know Owen’s work a few years back through Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Professor Fussell was badly wounded in World War II and is still filled with the righteous outrage that fills most combat men. God bless him.

Many will recoil in horror from the idea that there can be beauty in the life led by combat soldiers, the immortal “grunts” and Grognards who live in historic memory. It is all too easy to see nothing but the pain and the misery of loss, wounds and experience so horrible that it scars for life. Perhaps the worst is the memory of suffering necessarily inflicted on others whose motives are often no more base or lacking in what the Romans called pietas than our own. Not political enough for you? Go talk to a soldier and see if he agrees with you.

Comrades in Fear and Friendship

On the good side of the ledger there is the fact that there are no better friends than those with whom you have been deeply and comprehensively afraid. “Go tell my mother,” says Private Ryan in Spielberg’s exquisite film. “Go tell her that I will stay here, with the only brothers I have left.” This rings so true that it requires no explanation. Those ties bind unto death, until “the last jump,” as I have heard World War II paratroopers express it. The friendship and indeed love of comrades often long gone is, perhaps, the greatest “good” in war. It is often said that war brings out the best and the worst in people. This is profoundly true. Men who in civilian life would not have crossed the street to help a stranger often fall in the effort to help near strangers. There are many good things to be remembered. All of them have to do with comrades.

These days we are served by professionals and militia soldiers of the National Guard and reserve. These are men and women who bring to mind Lt. Col. Arthur Fremantle’s description of the infantry soldiers of Lee’s army at Gettysburg. Fremantle was a Coldstream Guards officer who had come to America to observe. He got a bellyfull of observing, but said of “Lee’s Miserables” that they were “simply beyond praise.” Our people are like that now. A friend’s son is now on his way back overseas for his fourth tour of duty in the Asian war against the jihadis. Soon, his experience will not be unusual. Forty-five years ago his father and I, looking down the barrel of another war, would never have believed that we would see this. We were short-sighted, blinded by the myopia of youth. What is the old saw from Plato? “Only the dead have seen the end of war….” Really? My word….

I sometimes receive letters from people who are filled with a great and high-minded attitude about war. “Well, that is why soldiers exist….” “Losses are worth their pain in a good cause….” “Our soldiers will prevail through their skill and the great weapons we buy them.” I would say to such people that the soldiers already know that. They do not need your boosterism to help them do their duty. They will do their duty to the last, as so many of our soldiers have done. Just let them get on with it without suffering the indignity of your remarks.

Just after the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, an Army chaplain said Mass one Memorial Day in the post chapel of the Presidio of Monterey. Since America is a Jesuit magazine, it is fitting to mention that he was a Jesuit, as so many other Army chaplains have been. He had served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He had served with many infantry units. The infantry are the people who always do the serious, up-close killing and dying. The Army reckons that over 90 percent of all combat deaths happen in the infantry.

During his homily this priest looked out at the congregation, overwhelmingly populated with combat men and their families. He said that he wanted the people of God to remember their brothers asleep in the Lord’s embrace. He wanted them to remember how each man died alone, alone in fear, alone in misery, usually with no one to comfort him, often in the dark, with his life running out through mutilations that left little doubt of the outcome. He asked them to pray for their brothers, for the brothers who had died for us all as Jesus died for us all. The congregation sang. “In the beauty of the lilies/ Christ was born across the sea,/ with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me./ As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free./ His truth is marching on.”

A Memorial Day Prayer

Nothing has changed. The wounds inflicted by improvised explosive devices are appalling. Go to Walter Reed or Bethesda and see for yourself. The troops are not complaining. They never complain, and so nobody has any right to be less committed to the eternal mission of the soldier than they are.

This Memorial Day, remember that the cemeteries and physical therapy wards are full of men and women who gave their all for you, and who in many cases ask nothing more than to be allowed to go back and do it again. Pray for them. Please.

“I have eaten your bread and salt.
I have drunk your water and wine.
The deaths ye died, I have watched beside,
And the lives ye led were mine.

Was there aught that I did not share
One joy or woe that I did not know,
Dear hearts across the seas?

I have written the tale of our life
For a sheltered people’s mirth,
In jesting guise—but ye are wise,
And ye know what the jest is worth.”

– Rudyard Kipling
“The Rifleman”

This entry was posted in Vietnam and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Dear Hearts Across the Seas: A Memorial Day Prayer

  1. Leith says:

    Thank you Pat and thanks to Harper for reposting.

    Nowadays the indignities are a bit softer, but they still stick in my craw. Instead of saying “That is why we paid you”, now they say “thank you for your service”. What am I supposed to say in return? To say “You’re welcome” would be self-serving. So I politely tell them that this veteran would prefer to hear “Welcome home” instead of thank you. But many don’t understand that. They shake their head and probably write me off as a grouch or a sorehead. So be it.

  2. jim ticehurst says:

    Our Daughter has her folded Flag..On Behalf of a Greatful Nation..
    I Tell Our Grandson..Ever Good Memory I Have of His Dad..
    They All..Will Always be..The Greatest Generation.All..Living And Dead..
    God Knows Them..WeRemember Them…
    With Love..

  3. Babeltuap says:

    Thanks for re-posting. Timeless. I was reading about Audie Murphy today. I didn’t know he was forever tormented the rest of his life by what he had seen and done. Memorial Day for him and people who lived to see their brothers die…I don’t even want to think about it but they have to.

    • Bill Roche says:

      Last Veterans Day my wife insisted we go to the Chappaqua train station to participate in Veterans Day memorial. There were guys there from WW II, Korea, Nam, and the M.E. But there were so few. I sat next to an old guy who served on a destroyer in WW II and helped him stand for our anthem. My service was safe, my job interesting, and my officers superb. That old gent had a tougher hitch than I did. Tomorrow town will hold its Memorial Day Parade. I’ve lived in town for 47 years and never marched. I am not a demonstrative type. But there were so few; so I’ll show up and walk down the hill to the train station. Maybe I’ll meet my Navy friend again. Hope so.

  4. d74 says:

    The prayer of the French Para.

    Aspirant André Zirnheld, born in 1913, philosophy teacher in Tunisia before the war. In 1940 he went to British Palestine to join the Free French. Officer cadet in Brazzaville. Joined the SAS (French Squadron). Died on July 27, 1942 after the raid against the air base of Sidi-Hanesh. 37 planes destroyed, 2 British SAS died during the operation.

    “I address you, my God,
    for you alone give
    that which can only be obtained from oneself.

    Give me, my God, what you have left
    Give me what one never asks of you.

    I do not ask you for rest
    nor peace of mind
    neither of the soul nor of the body.

    I do not ask you for wealth
    nor success, nor perhaps even health.

    All this, my God, one ask so much of you
    that you must not have any more.

    Give me, my God, what you have left
    Give me what you are denied.

    I want insecurity and worry
    I want the turmoil and the fight,
    and you give it to me, my God,
    that I may be sure to have them always,
    because I won’t always have the courage
    to ask you for them.

    Give me, my God, what you have left
    Give me what others don’t want

    But give me also the courage
    and strength and faith.

    For you alone give
    what one can only get from oneself. “

  5. JK/AR says:

    This conversation wasn’t meant, I don’t think, with even the the least thought that it might be offered as a sort of homage on this, I would argue, the most holy of our nation’s holidays set aside for remembrance.

    But it’s stuck with me as such, the holiness of it all I mean to say when I first watched it through. Welcome home neighbors. Welcome home Dad. Welcome home friends.

Comments are closed.