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

News Abroad

Mr. DePastino is the author of Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (to be published in 2008) and a writer for the History News Service. An independent scholar, he teaches history at Penn State Beaver.

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.

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Jason Blake Keuter - 5/25/2007

the rarity is not the failure to hang your head; the failure is to actually honor people who fought in America's wars. the assumption underlying the article is that anti-war dissent is a marginal activity - it isn't at all, historically or in the present. the author, in creeping totalitarian fashion, is demanding that memorial day celebrations adopt the culture of the university and feel ashamed of their country and the people who fought for it.

but, there are no American Wars that conform to the neat assumption that America's involvement in them had nothing to do with protecting America's very existence. ideological bias and a thinly veiled blind anti-americanism has yielded generations of university professors and grad. school lap-dogs who simply do no untangle any of the complexities of world affairs that have shaped the historical context in which the U.S has fought its wars - contexts that do not allow simplistic notions of hubris, or blind aggression, or diversion from domestic issues, or acquisition of resources, or racism or nazi-esque genocide any of the other laughably reductionist explanations for America's military actions. THus sticking with their simplictic moralizing, the professoriat and their lap dog grad school lackies and stoner undergrad semo-syllabic fist-wavers adopt at best a patronizinig tone on memorial day towards those less knowing (not seekinig phd's and living in fear of the scrawny shouldered on the dissertation committees) who marched blindly into the hands of death and dismemberment for no good reason at all.

no, the apologies due on memorial day are from those that haven't fought and never will and cling to idiotic ideological reducctionist history to justify their self-serving cowardice in the face of very real enemies.

Mike Schoenberg - 5/22/2007

Since you don't know the authors pain history it seems worthless to get into that. But lets look at the fact that this is the worst prepared war under Rumsfeld, executed under Bush and Cheney, with no sacrifice asked of us and no end in sight. At least in previous wars financial sacrifice was asked of all the general public.

Vernon Clayson - 5/21/2007

Author DePastino is merely engendering interest in a book he has written, that's okay, it's the capitalist thing to do but writing from Beaver, PA, is different than writing and sketching from war as Bill Mauldin did. Mauldin saw death and destruction on a regular basis but had the depth of understanding to depict humor in terrible circumstances. He brought humor to men in circumstances the author cannot imagine. DePastino, you cannot compare WWII with this war, you cannot compare it with Korea or Vietnam, have you ever felt fear, pain, or even had your feelings hurt? You are ill-suited to speak of war from your comfortable academic world.

Clark Richards - 5/21/2007

Truscott is also quoted as saying, "Let me tell you something, and don't ever forget it. You play games to win, not lose. And you fight wars to win. That's spelled W-I-N ! And every good player in a game and every good commander in a war...has to have some son of a bitch in him. If he doesn't, he isn't a good player or commander....It's as simple as that. No son of a bitch, no commander.

Our nation and our politicians are to blame for allowing an atmosphere to prevail where the decisions necessary to win are constrained by a public opinion that is manipulated by a "can't we all just get along" news media that fails to recognize that evil can only be conquered by force, political spin, and articles such as this that while factually accurate about General Truscott's speech have used his words to argue against a campaign that might have been proceeding more favorably if we had leaders like him guiding the path.

The Iraq War has removed a dictator responsible for hundreds of thousands of murders, provided an opportunity for a nation that desires to establish a democracy, (remember the purple fingers held proudly loft), and enabled the United States and our allies to confront enemies away from our homeland. Victory can still be achieved if our resolve can be reestablished, if not, we will bring terror to our own streets.

Shame on you for using the words of a patriot to spin a story that may contribute to America losing its' determination to win, strengthening the morale of the enemy and causing more of our youth to perish.

I suspect that many that don't recognize that sometimes evil must be confronted in battle, would categorize WWI as a war of choice and suggest that after Pearl Harbor the United States should have asked to convene a conference where we could talk about issues.

The horror of war is shameful to be cast on the youth that are called to fight and die. The gratitude that America owes to the wounded and fallen can never be fully recognized. Sadly, there are tyrants, terrorists and bullies in the world that would control and subjugate those that lack the moral or physical will to confront them. The people of Iraq needed the help of the United States. If we fail we will condemn many to death similar to what happened to the South Vietnamese people when we withdrew.