Jewish World Review May 24, 2002 / 13 Sivan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Let us cross over the river

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com |

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death . . .

-- Alan Tate, "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

Memorial Day is for the living; the dead are beyond all the fanfare, beyond all grief and pride and horror now. They cast a silence greater than all the speeches and band music and flyovers and 21-gun salutes .

It's a day for family picnics and block parties, for solemn rituals and good times, for old friends and memories that will not die, for the look of faded photographs in the family album .

The mix of joy and sorrow, the quick and the dead, the grief and pride, then and now -- it is all as it should be in a free country aware for a moment of the price of freedom.

Call up the faces in the Mathew Brady photographs. Or the huddled figures in Robert Capa's grainy photographs of D-Day. Open the old albums and their moving, unornamented dignity returns. Even the poses they strike seem innocent, false in no way.

Twenty years after D-Day, sitting on the wall of another military cemetery, the one on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the general who led that invasion thought back to that day:

"These men came here to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom. Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these but these young boys were cut off in their prime." -- Dwight D. Eisenhower. The men called him Ike.

The faces in the photographs have an innocence and dignity forever preserved, and something else: a loneness. Each stands out. Yet today each is not alone in our memory; they form the real grand army of the republic, rank upon rank, a long gray line stretching back to Gettysburg and Antietam, to Yorktown and Saratoga, as far back as memory.

Beyond and above the quiet decorum of the graves today there rises again the roar of battle. "Turn your eyes to the immoderate past," the poet urges us in a line of his "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Think of a time when not just the land was divided but the language by a brothers' war. To this day some call one battle Bull Run, others First Manassas. Imagine the first awful moment there when the enemy appeared -- bearing our flag.

Whose side were we on, anyway? Think of the madness of it. "I shall never forget the feelings with which I regarded this emblem of our country so long beloved, and now seen for the first time in the hands of a mortal foe." -- William W. Blackford, aide to Col. J.E.B. Stuart, Black Horse Cavalry, C.S.A.

Yet, after only a fateful moment's hesitation, they would rise to the war cry, without imagining the unimaginable things that lay ahead, the four awful years ahead. They would rise out of pure instinct and rage at the invader's approach. Yelling defiance, they would strike back, that inscrutable infantry, rising like demons out of the earth, firing at their own, old flag. They, too, were Americans, just under a different banner, with a different definition of their country, but with the same wild American craving for independence.

Such was also cause of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who dreamed of a United Tribes of America and so never rested from war, or forgot a warrior's chivalry. If he accepted a general's commission from His Britannic Majesty, it would be as one accepts a war trophy, a bright feather, another token, an alliance of convenience against the enemy of the fair land.

No one who is remembered on this Memorial Day could claim a more American heritage than Tecumseh's warriors, or those others in the army of Northern Virginia. Put the two together and one would have a compendium of American courage and chivalry from beginning to end. Yet neither fought under the Stars and Stripes.

A strange and curious and always deepening thing, American memory and American continuity, composed of streams that only seem to diverge. In the end they come together in the ever swelling tide called history. That kind of history produces a different kind of country, one held together by different histories, but the same hope: freedom.

Let us take our text today from the words and deeds of T.J. Jackson, Gen., C.S.A. In his final delirium, Jackson was still coming to Lee's aid. ("Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks .") Then he paused, and said his last. The words capture the right spirit for this quiet Memorial Day morning in what, Glory Be, turned out to be his country and all of ours after all: Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.

Have a good holiday, Gentle Reader, a restful holiday, and return from the land of memory strengthened and renewed. Nations need rest and remembrance, too, because the battles are far from over.

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