Op-Eds by Jim

The Power of Remembering

May 25, 1981
by James Webb, The Washington Post

“By making a distinction between a failed war and their dedicated warriors,
the Japanese have illustrated the spiritual power of commemoration and the nobility of military service.”

There is strength to be gained from remembering.

The ancient Druids knew this, as did the Greeks, and the Romans, and the women of the defeated Confederacy after the Civil War, all of whom made a practice of strewing the graves of dead warriors with flowers. So did Britain’s Prime Minister William Gladstone, who once intoned, “Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead, and I will measure exactly the sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

And the Japanese, perhaps, know it best.

I can still taste the mix of warm rain and my tears as I stood on top of a Japanese pillbox on the invasion beach of Saipan in 1973, staring out into the emerald lagoon and distant reef from whence came two divisions of American Marines, 29 years and two wars before. I had arrived on the island on the anniversary of the invasion, which took place two years before my birth, and found it still littered with the artifacts of war: rusted hulks from landing craft, pillboxes buried to their firing apertures in sand, thick jungles filled with weapons and helmets and dud artillery rounds.

In the lagoon itself, two American tanks sat forever frozen in the attack, clanking war machines that had become tombs for youth making their way onto the beaches of this unknown, isolated spit of coral. The young Marines in the tank, as well as 3,400 other Americans over the space of three weeks, had given the ultimate, irretrievable gift to the culture that had nurtured them.

Later, sitting in a hotel restaurant filled with Japanese tourists, I wondered whether the events of the ensuing years could justify their deaths. How would I have explained to them on June 15, 1944, that within a generation the very nation they died helping to defeat, whose soldiers aimed the artillery piece that shot them dead, would economically dominate their battleground and graveyard under the protection of their own military? How would they have reacted if I could have predicted for them that their metal coffin would become a conversation piece for the children of their defeated enemy? “History,” wrote T. S. Eliot “has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues.” And the unimaginable becomes unexplainable.

The Japanese, I think, groped with this question from the other end of the dilemma: how could a nation beaten on the battlefield find meaning and momentum in the events of its defeat, while at the same time renouncing war? The answer, predictably for their culture, lay in their war dead. The Japanese renounced war but embraced their warriors. It was as if each death involved a transfer of energy, the soul of the soldier feeding into the soul of the nation, until the very enormity of Japan’s defeat became itself the fuel for its post-war emergence.

Japanese monuments are familiar sights on Saipan, some of them constructed at great cost by private citizens. Shinto prayer sticks dedicated to dead Japanese from those long-ago war years gather like choked weeds at intersections throughout the island. I drove to Suicide Cliff, where thousands of Japanese jumped to their deaths rather than surrender, and watched in awe as one of Japan’s many “search teams” sifted through the dirt at the bottom of the cliff, patiently collecting flecks of bones in order to give ancestors and friends a proper Shinto burial. By contrast, the only American monument was a small cross with a helmet on top, erected in the early 1950s, which stood forlornly in front of the local Toyota dealership.

By making this distinction between a failed war and their dedicated warriors, the Japanese have illustrated the spiritual power of commemoration and the nobility of military service. Nations make war; soldiers merely fight them. Win or lose, in a modern environment war represents the failure of the political process to manage its external affairs. Win or lose, war represents a nation’s most dreadful and costly human investment, in both immediate and long-term effects. And win or lose, war is sometimes unavoidable if a nation is to maintain its ideals and place in the worlds community. So how do we balance these anomalies and how do we repay those who have been called upon to defend the interest of our larger whole?

We begin by remembering, and we remember, collectively, on Memorial Day.

Formalism does not come easy to Americans. We are ethnically diverse, historically unsettled and irreverent. We were founded on the notion that authority is to be suspected rather than worshipped, and that same casualness carries over into our sense of country. H. L. Mencken once dryly noted that “it is as impossible for a civilized man to love his country in good times as it would be for him to respect a politician,” and there may be a morsel of truth in that. Memorial Day weekend is a time to go to the beach, to watch the Indianapolis 500, or to have friends over for a barbecue. In 1971, we conveniently made the holiday fall always fall a Monday in order to accommodate such frolic.

But I would hope that all of us might pause at some moment during the weekend and contemplate the pain and energy, and yes, the sacrifice that bought us this full day of leisure. From those remembered acts and from such contemplations, comes the truest sense of country.