Memorial Day 2023 has me considering the nature of sacrifice, what it means to leave cover and run toward the sound of gunfire.
Memorial Day 2023
In the preface to a 2008 post, “Andrew Olmsted’s Final Post” I wrote “As Silicon Valley’s economy slows down and expense controls transmute into layoff notices, it’s good to remember what real problems are.” One passage that I always find moving is the image of Horatio at the bridge:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death comes soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.
Thomas Babington, Lord Macauley “Horatius at the Bridge”
It’s about finding a purpose worth dying for. I don’t think most who join the military plan to die, but it’s certainly embedded in the responsibilities they have assumed.
“Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face that fact. When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. They were not thinking of getting killed when they went where death lurked. They went there to put the fire out, and got killed. Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.”
Edward F. Croker Chief of Department, FDNY speaking upon the death of a deputy chief and four firefighters in February of 1908
Deciding to become a soldier is the act of bravery. Death is an ever present risk but not near term certainty.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
J.R.R. Tolkien in “The Return of the King“
Tolkien survived the First World War, many of his classmates and fellow soldiers did not. Sam’s epiphany seems so real it must echo one of Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches.
Normandy was an American victory; it was the Army histrians’ duty to trace the twists and turns of fortune by which success was won. But to follow that rule slights the story of Omaha as an epic human tragedy which in the early hours bordered on total disaster. On this two-division front landing, only six rifle companies were relatively effective as units. They did better than others mainly because they had the luck to touch down on a less deadly section of the beach. Three times that number were shattered or foundered before they could start to fight. […]
Lieutenant Walter Taylor of Baker Company is a luminous figure in the story of D Day, one of the forty-seven immortals of Omaha who, by their dauntless initiative at widely separated points along the beach, saved the landing from total stagnation and disaster. Courage and luck are his in extraordinary measure. […]
Later, still under the spell, Price paid the perfect tribute to Taylor. He said: “We saw no sign of fear in him. Watching him made men of us. Marching or fighting, he was leading. We followed him because there was nothing else to do.”
Thousands of Americans were spilled onto Omaha Beach. The high ground was won by a handful of men like Taylor who on that day burned with a flame bright beyond common understanding.
S. L. A. Marshall “First Wave at Omaha Beach” [Nov-1960 issue of Atlantic]
It’s worth reading the whole thing. Facing horrific losses a lucky few persevered and established a foothold that turned a catastrophe into a victory.