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Memorial Day: A Day for Remembering -- and Accepting Responsibility

On Memorial Day, Americans pause during picnics, parades, and softball games to remember those who died fighting our country's wars.  It's rarely a day for apologies.  Yet, this year, we ought to consider apologizing for the Iraq War, a war of choice that has jeopardized our security, diminished our international standing, thrown Iraq into chaos, and, not incidentally, killed or wounded over 27,000 American soldiers.

Apologizing to those soldiers can't undo the damage that's been done. Saying "I'm sorry" is a small price to pay for so many lives ruined. But an apology by those of us who supported the war or stood by as the invasion unfolded would be a first step toward taking responsibility.

The burdens of the Iraq War have been borne in grossly unequal measure. Unlike World War II, this war doesn't require even the pretense of civilian sacrifice.

This year, Americans should look back to World War II and consider the remarkable speech given 62 years ago, on May 30, 1945, by Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., commander of the Allied Fifth Army in Italy.

Truscott was dedicating the American cemetery at the Italian seaside town of Nettuno, which lies just south of the Anzio beachhead.  Anzio was a poorly planned and executed invasion that cost some 3,000 American lives, most of them under Truscott's command. The dead were eventually buried in Nettuno's sandy soil, along with thousands of others killed in Italy.  On Memorial Day 1945, families had not yet retrieved their sons', husbands' and fathers' remains for burial back in the States.

Row after row of temporary grave markers, all painted white, fanned out behind a speaker's platform draped in bunting. There were benches for spectators and special folding chairs up front for VIPs, most of whom were members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

One of the back benchers was a 23-year-old infantry sergeant, Bill Mauldin, a cartoonist for Stars and Stripes. Mauldin was a hero to ordinary "dogfaces," as the frontline soldiers were called then, and his grim, rough-hewn cartoon feature, "Up Front," captured the world of combat like nothing else. He understood well the waste of war and the frequent venality of high command.  For that reason, he mostly stayed away from official ceremonies and dedications. To him, every day was Memorial Day.

But May 30, 1945 was different. "Truscott," he said, "was someone special." The general had swallowed carbolic acid as a child, which gave his voice a gravelly baritone that, said Mauldin, "made other strong men quail."  Unlike Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., a publicity hound whose trips to the front were elaborately staged photo-ops, Truscott shared in the dangers of combat, often going over maps on the hood of his jeep with company commanders as enemy fire whizzed around him.  "He could have eaten a ham like Patton for breakfast any morning," said Mauldin, "and picked his teeth with the man's pearl-handed pistols."

Mauldin's account of Gen. Truscott's speech at Nettuno is the best record we have of that day.  He recalled the general taking the stand and then turning his back on the audience in order to address the buried corpses arrayed behind him. "It was the most moving gesture I ever saw," Mauldin said.

In his heavy rasp, Truscott told the dead men that he was sorry for what he had done. He said that leaders all tell themselves that deaths in war aren't their fault, that such carnage is inevitable. Deep down, though, if they're honest with themselves, he said, commanders and politicians know it's not true. Truscott admitted he had made mistakes, perhaps many.

Then he asked the dead to forgive him. He was requesting the  impossible, he knew, but he needed to ask anyway.

Finally, Truscott debunked the idea that there was glory in dying for one's country. He saw nothing glorious about men in their teens and twenties getting killed, he said. He then promised the men buried at Nettuno that if he ever ran into anybody who spoke of the glorious war dead, he would "straighten them out." "It is the least I can do," he concluded.

Would that we had such leaders as Lucian Truscott this Memorial Day.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.