Sweet and Seemly it Still Is to Die for One's Country

Adapting the phrase from the Roman poet Horace, Wilfred Owen during World War I turned "it is was sweet and seemly to die for one’s country" into an anti-war poem. He may have had a point when it came to that war, a war that destroyed the very best of Europe’s young men and, in my view, set it on a downward spiral. Today Western Europe, with all its glorious architecture, art, and music seems like a living Disneyland.

Take, for example, the fire that gobbled up the roof and spire of one of Paris’ most enduring symbols, Notre Dame. The cathedral was built over a long period of time (almost two centuries) as a testament to faith and a binding treasure of a nation. The embers still glowed when architects floated notions of redoing it into, among others, the base of an amusement-meditation center with a swimming pool rooftop: 

Stockholm-based firm Ulf Mejergren Architects this week unveiled its plan to turn the roof into a giant cross-shaped public pool — guarded by the statues of the 12 apostles that were untouched by the inferno as they had already been removed for restoration, the World Architecture community said in a press release.

The contemporary design would draw attention to the “publicness” of the cathedral, and the swimming pool would serve as “a new meditative space with unmatched views over Paris,” the firm said, according to the release.

As we near Memorial Day, I most reflect on the short life of collective memory and what this means to the understanding of history. For me, Memorial Day will always mean my second-grade teacher’s tears as she explained the significance of the day to me. Her brother, an aviator, had perished in the war while training a new flier how to take off from an aircraft carrier. The wounds were deep and I’m sure I was not the only one in the classroom who understood this. Our fathers, uncles, and cousins had just returned (if they were lucky) from serving, often abroad. They didn’t have cell phones to call home. In fact, we often didn’t know exactly where they were. Our news of them came sporadically, in small handwriting on onionskin sheets, which had to pass censors so where they were and what they were doing was pretty much a mystery. The letters came out of order, as did ours to them. The press was also heavily censored, so it provided little information about what was going on where they were.

A few years later, in April of 1951,Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, and as MacArthur’s family had long ties to Wisconsin he was paraded past my elementary school where we stood on the grounds waving American flags as he passed by on his way to Mitchell Field. He had just addressed Congress memorably, saying, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

“The General’s plane arrived at Mitchell Field, and the entire city turned out to greet him. The populace greeted him with great enthusiasm. Everywhere the streets were lined with flag-waving, cheering people. April 27, 1951, was a day to be remembered in Milwaukee. The motorcade crept slowly up Wisconsin Avenue to the Stadium where 20,000 people roared their approval of a hometown hero’s return. Thus far, plans had proceeded as scheduled. On the official, bunting-draped platform erected especially for the ceremony, the hood denoting his honorary degree was placed across the General’s shoulders. He smiled broadly and stepped to the microphone. In the background, Mrs. MacArthur and 
the couple’s son sat proudly watching. General MacArthur began to speak.

“No sound came from the mike. He tapped it smartly. Still no sound; the P. A. system had conked out! There was a frantic call to the Engineering School which produced instant results. The General began to talk. His words were gracious, his tone courtly. The crowd went wild!

“Everything after that was anticlimax. Crowds pressed forward to see the famous man as the party left the stadium for a tour of the city. I rode with the General in his official car as we toured Milwaukee. He hadn’t bargained for this. Nor had we. He was very obviously fatigued. Yet, when the motorcade reached MacArthur Square, he acknowledged the greetings of the crowd graciously.   

We were too young to fully understand who he was and what had occurred but so well-regarded was he in that place and time, I remember confusing him in my mind with the myth of Hercules and telling my parents that when he was a baby lying in a shield he reached out and strangled two snakes.

It’s impossible to fully convey to even my now adolescent grandchild the temper of that time. How much we respected and adored our military. They had saved us, and we knew it. We knew it even before the postwar letters from Poland to my Aunt revealed what had happened to family members who had remained in their town and I heard her cries.

For my grandchild -- like you -- if she turns on the television or reads the papers, I’m sure she’ll see ads for picnic supplies, recipes for your cookout, notices of restaurant and lawn equipment specials, and stories of U.S. military war crimes. In the meantime, the head of the EU Commission derides nationalism as “Stupid” and the globalists in our ranks certainly agree with him. I disagree. People will not fight to defend bloated, incompetent, undemocratic international organizations like the EU or the UN. Americans wouldn’t. It’s mom, flag and apple pie (our national values), not Juncker’s. On Monday when the results of the EU elections can be published, we will find out if he’s right, if Western Europe wants to scrap nationalism, or if I’m right and sentiment for national sovereignty and traditions still rules the day.

Wilfred Owen’s bitter screed on war might have been appropriate for his time, but it is monstrously off the mark today when Americans and Europe face threats more akin to those of the war that followed the “war to end all wars.” Take some time off on Monday to remember and honor those who died for you.

Adapting the phrase from the Roman poet Horace, Wilfred Owen during World War I turned "it is was sweet and seemly to die for one’s country" into an anti-war poem. He may have had a point when it came to that war, a war that destroyed the very best of Europe’s young men and, in my view, set it on a downward spiral. Today Western Europe, with all its glorious architecture, art, and music seems like a living Disneyland.

Take, for example, the fire that gobbled up the roof and spire of one of Paris’ most enduring symbols, Notre Dame. The cathedral was built over a long period of time (almost two centuries) as a testament to faith and a binding treasure of a nation. The embers still glowed when architects floated notions of redoing it into, among others, the base of an amusement-meditation center with a swimming pool rooftop: 

Stockholm-based firm Ulf Mejergren Architects this week unveiled its plan to turn the roof into a giant cross-shaped public pool — guarded by the statues of the 12 apostles that were untouched by the inferno as they had already been removed for restoration, the World Architecture community said in a press release.

The contemporary design would draw attention to the “publicness” of the cathedral, and the swimming pool would serve as “a new meditative space with unmatched views over Paris,” the firm said, according to the release.

As we near Memorial Day, I most reflect on the short life of collective memory and what this means to the understanding of history. For me, Memorial Day will always mean my second-grade teacher’s tears as she explained the significance of the day to me. Her brother, an aviator, had perished in the war while training a new flier how to take off from an aircraft carrier. The wounds were deep and I’m sure I was not the only one in the classroom who understood this. Our fathers, uncles, and cousins had just returned (if they were lucky) from serving, often abroad. They didn’t have cell phones to call home. In fact, we often didn’t know exactly where they were. Our news of them came sporadically, in small handwriting on onionskin sheets, which had to pass censors so where they were and what they were doing was pretty much a mystery. The letters came out of order, as did ours to them. The press was also heavily censored, so it provided little information about what was going on where they were.

A few years later, in April of 1951,Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, and as MacArthur’s family had long ties to Wisconsin he was paraded past my elementary school where we stood on the grounds waving American flags as he passed by on his way to Mitchell Field. He had just addressed Congress memorably, saying, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

“The General’s plane arrived at Mitchell Field, and the entire city turned out to greet him. The populace greeted him with great enthusiasm. Everywhere the streets were lined with flag-waving, cheering people. April 27, 1951, was a day to be remembered in Milwaukee. The motorcade crept slowly up Wisconsin Avenue to the Stadium where 20,000 people roared their approval of a hometown hero’s return. Thus far, plans had proceeded as scheduled. On the official, bunting-draped platform erected especially for the ceremony, the hood denoting his honorary degree was placed across the General’s shoulders. He smiled broadly and stepped to the microphone. In the background, Mrs. MacArthur and 
the couple’s son sat proudly watching. General MacArthur began to speak.

“No sound came from the mike. He tapped it smartly. Still no sound; the P. A. system had conked out! There was a frantic call to the Engineering School which produced instant results. The General began to talk. His words were gracious, his tone courtly. The crowd went wild!

“Everything after that was anticlimax. Crowds pressed forward to see the famous man as the party left the stadium for a tour of the city. I rode with the General in his official car as we toured Milwaukee. He hadn’t bargained for this. Nor had we. He was very obviously fatigued. Yet, when the motorcade reached MacArthur Square, he acknowledged the greetings of the crowd graciously.   

We were too young to fully understand who he was and what had occurred but so well-regarded was he in that place and time, I remember confusing him in my mind with the myth of Hercules and telling my parents that when he was a baby lying in a shield he reached out and strangled two snakes.

It’s impossible to fully convey to even my now adolescent grandchild the temper of that time. How much we respected and adored our military. They had saved us, and we knew it. We knew it even before the postwar letters from Poland to my Aunt revealed what had happened to family members who had remained in their town and I heard her cries.

For my grandchild -- like you -- if she turns on the television or reads the papers, I’m sure she’ll see ads for picnic supplies, recipes for your cookout, notices of restaurant and lawn equipment specials, and stories of U.S. military war crimes. In the meantime, the head of the EU Commission derides nationalism as “Stupid” and the globalists in our ranks certainly agree with him. I disagree. People will not fight to defend bloated, incompetent, undemocratic international organizations like the EU or the UN. Americans wouldn’t. It’s mom, flag and apple pie (our national values), not Juncker’s. On Monday when the results of the EU elections can be published, we will find out if he’s right, if Western Europe wants to scrap nationalism, or if I’m right and sentiment for national sovereignty and traditions still rules the day.

Wilfred Owen’s bitter screed on war might have been appropriate for his time, but it is monstrously off the mark today when Americans and Europe face threats more akin to those of the war that followed the “war to end all wars.” Take some time off on Monday to remember and honor those who died for you.