How does victory confer retroactive meaning on the deaths of the winning side’s soldiers? For that matter, what is the “meaning” of a death? Obviously, I have been nudged into this line of inquiry by the wave of second thoughts about the war in Iraq now that we have been fighting there for ten years. Which in turn recalls to my mind the ten-year war in Vietnam.
And (given the Lincoln film and the wave of other Lincoln material on my not-so-secret vice, the History Channel) the Civil War and so on. “That these dead shall not have died in vain…” – aside from the elegant use of the future perfect verb, which I can’t imagine even the best speechwriter daring to use today, this requires some mental gymnastics, looking back at the past war deaths from the viewpoint of a yet-unformed future. Did Lincoln mean that, at the time he was actually speaking, those deaths were (had been?) in vain, and would continue to have no meaning unless the United States conferred meaning on them in some way? The battle of Gettysburg was pretty close to the end of the war, but that might not have been readily apparent to Lincoln or those who heard him at the time; so was he only saying “we have to stay with this war, finish it, and win it”? Or was he saying (as Garry Wills tells us) that the people of the United States can confer meaning on the Civil War deaths only by committing to his vision of freedom and equality as the outcome of the war? Or (skilled politician that Lincoln was) was he allowing his listeners to take their choice of commitments?
At the most basic level, most of us die for nothing. The privilege of dying for a purpose is rare, dearly bought, and usually an integral part of living for a purpose.
Some of us die as “martyrs” to our freedom to smoke tobacco or eat fatty foods or drink alcohol or ingest various other drugs or drive fast cars or have unprotected sex. Most of us just die “for lack of another breath,” as the old epitaph puts it. Why should we demand more for those who die fighting in a war? (We rarely, by the way, insist on conferring meaning on the deaths of civilians in wartime. There is no monument to the Unknown Civilian, though perhaps there should be. The closest we get is G.B. Shaw’s imagined monument to Jack Falstaff*.)
The “meaning” and “honor” of death in battle are among our oldest social/ religious/ political sancta. The Iliad doesn’t quite have Achilles telling his buddies that Patroclus should not have died in vain (which is just as well, given the difficulty of using the future perfect in Homeric Greek), but it comes pretty close. And I think it all connects to guilt. The soldiers who died in battle died serving us (whoever “us” may be—Greece, Troy, Christians, Muslims, France, Germany…), and “we” (who in many instances are still alive because we dodged the draft or in some other unworthy way avoided military service) can’t do much to compensate them except to be appropriately grateful to them for making our lot better in some way than it would have been without their sacrifices. It is they who have conferred meaning on our lives, rather than the reverse.
Is there no meaning to be found in a losing battle? The Alamo? Masada? Thermopylae? Two of these three were actually losing skirmishes in ultimately victorious wars, and acquire their meaning after the victory to which they contributed. Masada, perhaps, is sui generis. It is part of a much longer “war” on a much more significant, well-nigh cosmic level.
And, of course, there is always the Lost Cause. I grew up in the American South, when Robert E. Lee was an eternal presence in our history and our geography, the 800-pound spiritual gorilla in the room. It has, finally, lost most of its meaning, mainly by being outweighed by other, newer martyrs. It lasted as long as it did mainly because the culture of the American South did, after all, survive to tell its story. History is not always written by the victors, but it is almost always written, or at least preserved, by the survivors. Sometimes it is the survivors on the other side, who demand the credit due to those who nobly defeat a noble foe (as opposed to the Crips defeating the Bloods, or maybe even the Capulets and the Montagues, or the Hatfields and the McCoys.)
But, History Channel buff that I am, I long for a different view of historical meaning. I long for a monument to the Unknown Civilian, to those who not only died (everybody dies, after all) but who first endured, who gave us not the cheap flashy courage of the NASCAR driver or the fake courage of a John Wayne, but the deep-rooted long-lasting courage of the Middle Passage, of Leningrad, of Sarajevo, of Robben Island, of the Warsaw Ghetto. That kind of courage, we can all attain, and it can give meaning to all of our lives.
* The real Falstaff, Sir John Oldcastle, actually was a martyr, burned at the stake for his commitment to his proto-Protestant Lollard heretical beliefs. Shakespeare chose to play him for laughs mainly for political reasons. Although his martyrdom is memorialized in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he seems to have no physical monument, unless you count a pub named for him in Farringdon, UK.