Musing about U.S. wars, victories and defeats

May 25, 1998|By Peter Kumpa

MEMORIAL Day. I am allowed to go with my friend Joseph, his older sister and mother and father, a World War I veteran and member of the American Legion, to the cemetery. The drums beat and the men march in the middle of the street while Joseph, never Joe, and I follow quickly by the side. We carry small flags, not the large ones that are being ruffled by the brisk New England wind. We wear jackets and ties, and shoes are shined for this is a special day, a holy day.

The monsignor is there to say a few words and lead the prayers. We bow our heads and keep them there for too long. A few more speeches, wreaths left gently on the graves, tears wiped away. The bugles blare sadly and we head for home, thrilled to be part of an adult ritual.

Lost in war

There was talk of another war then. Radios crackled with the shouts of someone named Hitler. Joseph and I find the disputed places like Danzig, Czechoslovakia and the Maginot line on newspaper maps. Joseph would go to that fractious Europe as an infantryman like his father, but he would never come back for Memorial Day. He was lost in a place that was not on those old maps, the cold and snowy spot of the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

He was one of the U.S. soldiers killed in World War II. The country created monuments to them just as it had for those killed in its other wars.

The Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars added to the total of memorials, the war dead and larger cemeteries. Vietnam was surely the bitterest and most controversial of conflicts that produced a strong anti-war movement at home with a more intense feeling against protesters by those who fought for their country.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, or simply "The Wall," has been the most touching, most evocative of all memorials to American dead. It is not simply the names on a wall but the fact that the names, and perhaps the spirit, are within reach. Run your fingers along the names of those youngsters who died for you and it will break your heart. It has been the most healing of our monuments.

Across the country there have been many similar memorials, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Middle Branch Park, which bears the names of 1,046 Maryland soldiers killed in battle and a list of 35 counted among the missing.

On the Canton waterfront, the Korean War Memorial bears the names of the 525 Marylanders known to have been killed there.

Overlooking the Severn by Annapolis, a memorial for all World War II veterans will be dedicated later this summer. It is an appropriate location, close to the site where the first sea battle in the new colony of Maryland took place more than three centuries ago.

Honoring soldiers

This Memorial Day, at all memorials, battlefields, cemeteries and many churches, there will be ceremonies and services. Americans will honor all veterans and all the dead from all her conflicts going back to the birth of nationhood.

Sometimes it seems that we forget too much about the oldest of our wars. The Revolutionary War was no easy outing of guys in strange uniforms lugging something called a musket. It was in that harsh conflict that Marylanders gained a special accolade, the distinctive name for their state, "the Old Line State."

The name came from the Maryland Line, the troops assigned to Gen. George Washington's Continental Army. From the start, they showed the bravery that made them Washington's favorites, the reliable core of an army that was too often ragged.

At the Battle of Long Island, the "Maryland 400" saved the Continental Army from destruction and thereby probably saved the revolution. When Washington was badly outflanked, when his center folded and the army routed, only the Marylanders were left standing.

Sword in hand, Major Mordecai Gist launched a frontal assault on the 10,000 British and Germans surrounding them. "The Marylanders' red coats ironically completed their imitation of British bayonet charge," one account said. "At first, the astonished king's men could not believe the sight of this handful of Americans, fifes shrilling and drums beating, coming toward them across the grassy field. Then they woke up and began blasting away at them with every available musket and two field pieces. Men crumpled. The American ranks wavered, broke . . . they re-formed and they returned to the attack, not once but five more times."

Cornwallis rushed four more regiments into the fray. The Marylanders paid the price but the rest of Washington's army escaped. Out of 400, some 259 were dead. Baltimore wept, for it was home to most of those volunteer soldiers.

Ending war

Preparing for a new century and a new millennium, it should be time for a change in human history. As John Keegan, a war historian, concluded "Politics must continue; war cannot. That is not to say that the role of the warrior is over.

"The world community needs, more than it has ever, skillful and disciplined warriors who are ready to put themselves at the service of authority. Such warriors must properly be seen as the protectors of civilization, not its enemies."

Peter Kumpa is a former Sun columnist and Maryland Senate historian.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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