Memorial Day
Now, as then, there needs to be a sense of obligation.

Monday, May 29, 2006

DOES REMEMBRANCE matter? The Greek playwright Aeschylus was the author of dozens of works, and while most of them are lost to us, his "Oresteia" trilogy and "Seven Against Thebes" are among those that survive as jewels of world literature. And yet, on Aeschylus's tomb the brief inscription listed but one accomplishment: that he fought at Marathon. Yes, it matters.

That battle in the wars between Persia's mighty empire and the embattled Greeks is seen by some as a turning point in history -- in the struggle between East and West, or as some historical partisans might see it through their own tendentious lens, between darkness and light. Aeschylus saw things in more elemental terms. In "The Persians," possibly his first play, he describes a massive Persian force that is "Eager to bind on Greece the servile yoke." A messenger to the defeated Persian court brings back this account of the battle of Salamis, 10 years after Marathon (where Aeschylus also fought): "And now distinct we heard/From ev'ry part this voice of exhortation:/'Advance, ye sons of Greece, from thraldom save/Your country, save your wives, your children save . . ./The common cause of all demands your valor.' "

The Good War, circa 480 B.C.? Hardly. For as the playwright had reason to know, none of them was good, though some were necessary. Ancient warfare was as ugly as modern, probably more so. Once the battle turned one way or the other, it tended to become a rout, with the victors pursuing the vanquished and slaughtering them without mercy. Aeschylus portrays with humanity the suffering and lamentation among the Persians for their fathers, sons, husband and lovers. The questions that dogged the Greeks then are questions that divide us still: of the necessity of one war or another, and the wisdom of pursuing it.

What ought to be unquestioned among us is the honor due those who have little to say about the rightness of a war but who take on the duty of fighting it. Memorial Day in America dates back to our bloodiest and most divisive conflict, the Civil War. The observance of it has waxed and waned in solemnity in the years since -- mostly waned.

A White House commission was set up five years ago to encourage a moment of silence at 3 p.m. on this day. But as with most White House commissions, it hasn't had much success, which is perhaps just as well. This is the sort of observance that ought to spread by word of mouth and a common sense of obligation. So, a thought for this afternoon, about 3 o'clock: Today the common cause of all demands not your valor, or even your inconveniencing -- it demands only a moment of your time to remember.

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