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On Memorial Day, we honor the price they paid
Column by George Will

Nevertheless they are heard … / They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them. — Archibald MacLeish, “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak” (1940)

This year, the most geopolitically ominous since World War II, do something that is, we should admit, rarely done on Memorial Day: remember.

Those who fly in or out of Reagan National Airport, across the Potomac from the nation’s capital, are reminded, if only fleetingly. The more than 400,000 gleaming white headstones that, row on row, lace Arlington National Cemetery’s green fields actually do speak. Their silent eloquence tells us what we usually forget to remember — the price paid for what we have.

Which includes the freedom to forget how menacing the world is becoming. And how fast dangers multiply, the more we forget.

From Flanders to the Philippines, the globe is girded with U.S. military cemeteries. The one above the Normandy beaches contains only one soldier who did not die during the Normandy campaign. In 1955, Quentin Roosevelt, killed while a World War I pilot, was reinterred next to his brother, Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who suffered a fatal heart attack in France five weeks after leading U.S. troops at Utah Beach.

As you read this, Navy vessels are underway, on and under the oceans in 22 of 24 time zones, often close to being in harm’s way. To glimpse the demanding tempo of naval operations, read Mark Helprin’s 2023 novel “The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, a War Story, a Love Story.” It, like Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” is a celebration of the military virtues that the nation regularly decides have become dispensable anachronisms — until, suddenly, it cannot survive without them. Thus the importance of Helprin’s many literary reminders of what he calls “the eternal presence of battle.”

George Will
George Will

For Memorial Day viewing, try Apple TV Plus’s new nine-episode “Masters of the Air.” It is a worthy successor to the lacerating realism of the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan,” and HBO’s 10-part 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers,” about the actual experience of Easy Company of the 101st Army Airborne from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and beyond.

One wonders how many, if any, of today’s cosseted young critics of Israel’s conduct of its war to destroy Hamas have even an inkling of what war inevitably involves. And what the Allied war aim of unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan meant for civilians in Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, who is buried in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery, was eligible for burial nine miles away in Arlington. Two decades before he became a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, he flew 35 B-24 bomber missions over German-held territory in a war where U.S. bomber crews suffered higher casualties than did Marines on the Pacific islands. McGovern had standing to speak his mind about a war.

Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier received its first remains in 1921, on Armistice Day, as it was then generally known: Nov. 11. The unidentifiable soldier had been killed on the Western Front in what was called the Great War until a greater one arrived. Perhaps in 1921 it was presumed that this unknown soldier would be the only one in the Tomb. Then, on Memorial Day, 1958, it received two remains, from World War II and the Korean War. In 1984, an unknown from the Vietnam War was added, but his identity was later established. He was reburied in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, and the tomb’s Vietnam crypt has been left empty, to honor the missing from that war.

Forty percent of those who died to prevent the nation from fracturing — the Union dead in the Civil War — were never identified. “Nevertheless,” as Archibald MacLeish wrote of all young dead soldiers, “They are heard in the still houses …”

Rick Atkinson — the nation’s finest military historian, living or dead — has written of the 291,557 American lives lost in World War II combat: “Each death is as unique as a snowflake or a fingerprint. The most critical lesson for every American is to understand, viscerally, that this vast host died one by one by one; to understand in your bones that they died for you.” Remember this, and also the mostly young military men and women who this day, as every day, are in peril on the sea, and under it, and elsewhere.

George Will's email address is

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