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What Happens When the Sacred War Departs?

06/06/2014 10:45 am ET | Updated Aug 06, 2014
  • Michael Vlahos Professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs and adviser to the Kiernan Group
ASSOCIATED PRESS

On July 3 1913, fifty years after the battle, something like 50,000 Civil War veterans memorialized Pickett's charge as a few of them relived it:

"The two lines were formed one hundred feet apart, the Philadelphia Brigade on the North and Pickett's Division on the South side of the wall, over which they had fought with such desperate valor just fifty years ago to the hour -- the former with their Division Battle Flag and the latter with their 'Stars and Bars' they had carried over the wall ..."

For D-Day's 70th there are many fewer veterans, but somehow they are still there, and thus we can still touch the transcendence of a war, like the Civil War, like World War II, that we have made sacred to national identity.

How I remember, as a boy, five or six only, how my father recounted his adventures on Guam. This July will also be the 70th of that great invasion (or liberation). His stories were so vivid that I still feel almost there in the boy's imagination: The crazy dread of my father, a non-swimmer, clambering down the rope nets of the APA, a literal leap of faith into the landing craft heaving in the swell. Then the frying, white-hot sand of the beach, the blasted trees, the Marines.

The War was the greatest adventure of my father's life, as it was for millions of us, as it was for the entire nation. World War II was a sacred war. More than any other American experience of the last century, it has defined us -- who we are, why we are, and how we should be together as a nation.

War is the central passion of modernity. It is too terrible to recreate, too awful in its majesty to relive, and yet we long for the passion it so freely gives. There never was a moment when Americans felt more together, more committed to each other, as brothers and sisters -- as living kin -- than in World War II.

Only the vessel of sacred war can make us feel all as one, so alive again.

But we are not that nation now. Gone is America's old, restless need and desire. It was leaving even thirty years ago, when Reagan remembered on D-Day's 40th, "The Boys of Pointe du Hoc."

Sacred war is a national rite of collective sacrifice and transcendence, as Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg Address: Marking in blood the rebirth of the nation. Yet we no longer inhabit a world where societies seek this celebration as the catharsis of identity -- although some peoples insulted and injured, like Putin's Russia, may dream of it.

For us Americans today it is enough to feel a quick surge of pride, a little patriotic shiver or frisson, at the opening of Pro Ball. We need only genuflect to memory now. We have ritual commemoration locked in, 24/7 on cable, on the Military and Hitler channels, and now also, the ever-forthright "American Heroes Channel." TV always remembers, but how do we?

In front of our eyes the last men who scaled the bluffs are departing, or as some insist, ascending. As they fade away, what becomes of the tie that binds -- that only the sacrifice of war seems to make so strong?

Modernity, the time after the French Revolution, placed the nation above all else in life. And sacred war -- the kind that makes Gettysburgs and D-Days -- remains the strongest fuel moving nations. So as we try to remember something today, does this mean that the idea of the nation is losing steam, or that big war is still in our future?

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