Brooklyn, New York.
The Grand Army Plaza and its triumphal Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch. (1892)
You stand before the arch and gaze eighty feet up at its magnitude and at its bronze figures of martial success displayed against the sky. You may be swept, as I was, with the gratefulness which the Arch’s creators felt at the salvation of our national Union, coming as the result of our Civil War.
That conflict had cost our national Union—that is, the United States—blood and treasure on a massive scale. However, the war was finished; when the Arch was unveiled in 1892, Appomattox had occurred twenty-seven years before.
No longer was the South divided from the North; the threat of a fractured commonwealth had been averted. Brother, at least figuratively, was back together again with brother.
For a moment then, standing as I was before that 19th century Arch in my 21st century day, I was struck by how mighty our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers in the 19th century thought national and human aspiration to be.
They honored victory on the battlefield.
The Civil War was worthy, it their view, of elaborate sculpture.
They erected an elaborate Arch at a central crossroad of their town—topped by rearing war horses, shouting warriors, and ringing lances.
The Civil War occurred during the 1860s. During the 1960s, my generation had its own military adventure, which occurred in Vietnam.
What did my generation do to honor its adventure and its dead?
Monuments are the way we as cultures memorialize our sacrifices. Observe the difference, then and now.
In Washington, D.C., we created “The Wall.”
It’s made of black stone. It looks as though it is partly buried into the earth. On it there are names, and names, and names.
There is no decoration. There is nothing majestic about this monument.
Visitors looking for the name of a deceased warrior are provided nothing which shows that the warrior’s sacrifice was about anything of importance.
“The Wall” shows that the persons bearing these names existed once upon a time; then they didn’t. That’s all. We stare at the names as they march toward death.
“Nothing to see here, folks,” this sculpture seems to say, “nothing to honor. Move along, please.”
This cultural and artistic indifference reminds me of a remark by a prominent American politician when questioned about the death of American soldiers in a recent skirmish in North Africa. “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
On the other hand, some readers may remember the name of poet Rupert Brooke, who wrote from the trenches of World War One before he was killed in 1915.
A memorable poem of his, “The Soldier,” is tied to the same consciousness that erected the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch and would not have understood “The Wall” in Washington, D.C., nor the remark by the politician.
The initial lines of Brooke’s “The Soldier” read--
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
A sentiment such as Brooke’s could still be written during World War One but not for Vietnam (and the sentiment could still bring tears to the eyes of my mother when she quoted it to me often during my childhood). What a romantic ideal!
Since time immemorial, war used gloriously to be between one man and another. Sword to sword.
Our Civil War was one of the first wars in which machines began to appear—machine guns. Mechanized war was a new idea. By World War One, about a half century later, soldiers were less dominant and machines ever more ascending. But Brooke could invigorate The Great War’s mechanized slaughter with our humane pining for grandeur.
By the time of the Vietnam War, about another half century later, machines dominated everything. Warfare evolution has continued—our future wars may be fought between machine and machine…with no humans involved.
In terms of the number of human casualties, that trend may be good. But it is dry. It is passionless. It is cold.
Humans, as we have reason to know (it’s written right there in that Holy Book)—humans are made in the image of God.
Humans are hot, not cold.
Machines are not made in the image of God. Machines are made in the image of man.
Machines are not made with our human tension and awful joy of choice. Machines do what they are told to do without awe.
A future war fought by machine against machine, will be a spiritless war. It will be a dry war. There will be a no-meaning war. Observers will build neither Soldier’s and Sailor’s Memorial Arch II nor The Wall II in that war’s memory.
We would be better off to bring the spirit of God back into our awareness during battle. As warriors for Him, we would be better off to long that there should be a corner in some foreign evil field that is forever…God.
That’s a war worth fighting and combatants worth honoring.