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Memorial Day: Reflections on Visiting the American Military Cemetery at Belleau Wood

By Jock O'Connell


This article appeared in the Sunday Forum section of the Sacramento Bee on Memorial Day, May 30, 2004.


BOIS DE BELLEAU, France--Most Americans under a certain age have probably never heard of this place. As a notable place name in American military history, it has been overwritten in our national memory bank by more recent battlefields like Iwo Jima, Omaha Beach, Inchon, Khe Sanh, and now perhaps Fallujah. Yet for the generation whose members served in the American Expeditionary Force that Gen. John J. Pershing led to France after the United States entered World War I, few names resonated as strongly as Belleau Wood.

Until war came here in 1914, this was a private hunting preserve where wealthy Parisian sportsmen and their mistresses cavorted on weekends. It sits amid wheat fields little more than an hour's drive east of Paris. Ch‚teau-Thierry, the city on the River Marne that was the focal point of the last major German offensive of the war in July 1918, is just a couple of hills away to the southeast.

I had come to this part of France mostly to sample the local beverage. The Valley of the Marne is, after all, Champagne country. But on one overcast Saturday morning, there was a more personal matter on my agenda. I wanted to see where it was my late uncle Gus had nearly died when German mortars lobbed gas canisters onto his platoon.

A year or two before his death in 1956, I had watched as Gus, decked out in his old private's uniform, marched in our town's Fourth of July parade along with other veterans of The Great War as it was called until an even larger cataclysm came along a generation later.

As 7- or 8-year-old boys are wont to do, I had pestered him to tell me what he had done during his war. No doubt expecting tales of soaring courage, like in the movies, I would be left disappointed. All I got from him was evasion, a somber refusal to indulge me with details except that he'd been at a place called Belleau Wood and that he was "one of the lucky ones who came home."

That nugget of intelligence confused my boyish brain. For one thing, there was a homonym problem: Our neighborhood barber was an Italian-American gentleman named Bello, and for the life of me I could not imagine he owned a forest, much less one that men might fight over. Then there was the mortality problem. A child my age could not even begin to comprehend the fate that had befallen my uncle's comrades. Why hadn't they too come home? What had become of them? Where had they gone?

I found Belleau Wood to be much smaller than I had imagined, no more than a mile square. In the spring of 1918, the Germans had entrenched themselves in the forest, transforming it into what an observer described as "one enormous machine-gun nest." And it fell to American troops, notably including a brigade of Marines, to expel the Germans.

It took nearly all of June before that objective was won. The exorbitant price of the victory is evidenced in the American cemetery that rests along the wood's northern edge. This burial ground, with its 2,289 graves, is not the largest of the 22 American military cemeteries in Europe. (That distinction goes to the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, which contains 14,246 WWI graves.) But, sitting alongside an infamous battlefield, it is every bit as evocative as the much more celebrated World War II cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, where the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings will be commemorated next Sunday.

Despite its exquisitely manicured appearance, the graveyard here at Belleau Wood is an immensely somber and sorrowful place. If nothing else becomes apparent while walking among the rows of marble headstones, it is how naive we are to talk about gaining "closure" following personal or public tragedy. Closure is something only insurance companies achieve.

Some four score and six years after those in this cemetery perished, there is no sense of resolution here, merely the remnants of lives cut short in a conflict of dubious virtue. If any of these men died thinking they were fighting the war to end all wars - as the propaganda spin of the time claimed - then certainly an awful joke has been played on them. Make no mistake about it, in this part of France between 1914 and 1918, millions on both sides did die in vain.

America's overseas military cemeteries are wholly unlike the graveyards with which most of us are familiar. With their elaborate geometries of marble crosses and Stars of David, they have none of the whimsical jumble of gravestones, tombs and tablets that endows civilian cemeteries with a sense of life's extraordinary variability.

And in one very evident respect, they are even different than the more orderly veterans' cemeteries found throughout America. For these military graveyards overseas are filled entirely with men and women who never had an opportunity to die peacefully after a long, full life. Few, in fact, died peacefully at all. That much is underscored by the presence here at Belleau Wood of 251 gravestones bearing no names - testaments to those whose bodies were so mangled by flying metal or high explosive or the rot of decay as to be unrecognizable even to those with whom they had served.

Had they survived their ordeals intact, most would have lived well into the 20th century. They might have accomplished great things or committed notorious crimes. They most likely would have raised families, endured the Great Depression, and then seen their children go off to war.

But instead, they would never view a motion picture with sound, much less have a chance to scoff at the celluloid heroics of John Wayne and other make-believe patriots. And while some of them may have run into a lieutenant colonel named Eisenhower or a captain of artillery named Truman, the names DiMaggio, Garbo, Hemingway, Earhart, Bogart, Sinatra - or even Hitler and Stalin for that matter - meant nothing to them.

As anyone who has roamed a quiet graveyard will appreciate, the dead have a way of drawing your attention, even engaging you in conversation, albeit one-sided. Occasionally, it's a familiar name or home state on a grave marker that catches your eye. Sometimes, it's a puzzling inscription, a disturbing epitaph, or perhaps a date freighted with irony.

My walk through the cemetery at Belleau Wood was soon halted by a grave marker topped with a Star of David bearing the inscription: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." How in the heaven's name could they know your faith but not your name? (Most likely a prayer book or some other religious artifact was found with his otherwise unidentifiable remains was the guess offered by Douglas Howard, chief of the U.S. Army's Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, Va., when I talked with him by phone a few weeks later.)

Then there was the grave of 2nd Lt. Eugene Dorr Morse of Massachusetts, who died on Nov. 5, 1918. How poor was your luck to have succumbed amid rumors of peace just six days before the war ended? But then a brighter thought crossed my mind. Unlike all future generations of New Englanders, you, Lt. Morse, at least entered eternity knowing the Red Sox were baseball's champions. (They'd beaten the Cubs in that year's World Series.)

Not many steps away lay what was left of Finis E. Johnston, a private with the 4th Infantry Division, who was killed on July 18, 1918. Perhaps it was his Gaelic first name or the fact he was from California that drove me to see what more I could learn about him. Aided by the Internet, I found he came from Atwater in Merced County and that his grandfather, a prominent Presbyterian minister during the early years of California statehood, is buried in Winters. He shared his name with an uncle, a lawyer over in Napa who once served in the state Assembly and who, by some accounts, sold land around St. Helena to Jacob and Frederick Beringer so they could start a winery in 1875.

Remarkably, Pvt. Johnston was not the first of his line to die in service to America. His grandfather's grandfather fell at Yorktown in 1781. He was initially reported as missing in action in the War Department's list of casualties printed in the Sacramento Bee on Aug. 12, 1918. But whether it was patriotism, the tedium of rural life or simply a quest for adventure that prompted him to enlist remains a mystery.

America's military cemeteries overseas were ostensibly established to honor the memory of those who died for their country. But the men who lie there do not know they are being honored. The true purpose of these war monuments is analgesic. They exist to salve the grief of survivors (not the least of whom were the nearly 7,000 "Gold Star" mothers and widows the U.S. government brought to the eight WWI cemeteries in Europe during the early 1930s.) And they constitute an emotive down payment to those who might later be called on to lay down their lives.

But in ennobling the dead amid green lawns and white marble, these places help shield us from the indignity and inhumanity of combat. No doubt most families hoped their soldier had perished nobly, perhaps from a bullet through the heart while charging an enemy machine gun or going to the aid of a fallen comrade. They wanted to think that their son died while being comforted by a buddy or even a chaplain. They wanted to believe that his body was then gently buried with appropriate prayers and observances. And these exquisitely manicured cemeteries encourage such hopes, even though in most cases they are wishful fantasies.

The truth is that death in combat is normally much different from what those at home want to pretend. In "The Face of Battle," British military historian John Keegan writes that death on a World War I battlefield often came to men who lay alone and in great pain. Almost one-third of those slain, he estimates, succumbed to wounds that would not have been fatal if promptly treated. Others were victims of artillery which "could disintegrate a human being, so that nothing recognizable - sometimes apparently nothing at all - remained of him."

As for the manner of burial, consider this Oct. 18, 1918, memo from the chief surgeon of the U.S. 5th Army: "During the Chateau-Thierry campaign many bodies of men and animals lay on the battlefield for days after their death. During the warm weather prevailing then, they soon decomposed and formed most unsightly and insanitary objects. The stench was terrific but the worst feature was that of fly breeding. The bodies of both men and horses soon become a mass of maggots and flies bred by millions - the surrounding country was infested with them."

Elton Mackin was a Marine who fought at Belleau Wood and survived the war to write a combat memoir titled "Suddenly We Didn't Want to Die." In one passage, he remarks that the hundreds of temporary cemeteries which "dotted the fields and forests and farmsteads here and there with rows of little wooden crosses ... do not tell of how men died; they hide the bitter human stories of the war."

"The folks at home will never know the truth," Mackin concludes.

His was a view echoed on the other side. In "All Quiet on the Western Front," Erich Maria Remarque's narrator, Paul Bšumer, laments: "It's all rot that they put in the war news ..."

It is among America's most exceptional blessings that so very few of us have had any direct experience of war's viciousness and depravity. Even for those who served in uniform in wartime, historian William Manchester once estimated that as many as 90 percent "are as uninformed about the killing zones as those on the home front."

It is almost axiomatic that those best able to relate the savagery they saw in battle seldom speak of their ordeals. War may bring out the best in people, but it also brings out the worst. Surviving in combat, after all, requires the performance of deeds most people would rather forget. Describing how warfare inevitably victimizes everyone engaged, the poet Bruce Weigl concludes his "Elegy" thus:

The words would not let themselves be spoken. Some of them died. Some of them were not allowed to.

Literary historian Paul Fussell, writing of men in his rifle company in Europe during World War II, observes: "They knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied."

In an age of "publicity and euphemism," he complained, a shroud is drawn over the grisly and inhumane nature of war and thus obscures the force that, in the words of Remarque's former schoolboy-turned-soldier, "fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God only knows what devils."

That lament had been heard before. Walt Whitman, who spent much of the Civil War tending to the wounded and dying in Washington-area hospitals, eventually came to despair: "The real war will never get into the books."

It is definitely not for lack of effort. Writers like Stephen Crane, James Jones, Joseph Heller, Michael Herr and David Maraniss have struggled to capture some semblance of what it is like to be in combat. But what words can approximate the sensations of those who start each day wondering who among their ranks will be alive one moment and merely someone else's memory the next?

By contrast, the notions most Americans have of combat are derived principally from images filtered through a camera's lens. In Hollywood action films over the years, the portrayal of American soldiers under fire has typically been no more genuine than the butter on moviehouse popcorn. That was why the graphic scenes in "Saving Private Ryan" of American soldiers being slaughtered and dismembered on the beaches of Normandy were so disturbing to audiences accustomed to films in which only the enemy was permitted to die in gruesome ways.

Most recently, the business of reporting on the nation's wars has been guided less by old-fashioned decorum than by high-tech production values. In its breathless, nonstop reporting of the invasion of Iraq last year, television news employed a format not entirely unfamiliar to sports fans. Much like sideline reporters, the journalists embedded with troops in the field seldom captured anything more compelling or immediate than shots of sandstorms, long convoys of slow-moving vehicles, and peculiarly corpseless scenes of fresh battle.

Back in the studio, the war's progress was dissected by retired generals unintentionally doing their best to impersonate John Madden telestrating a football play. And the pieces de resistance were those Pentagon-supplied film clips of precision air strikes so similar to video games teenagers play that viewers could overlook the fact that real people were being killed.

No armies have fought on American soil in nearly 140 years. Until our own aircraft were used to terrorize us three years ago, no American city had been attacked since 1941. But what if geography or deliberate artifice had not shielded generations of Americans from the ravages of war? What if it were our countryside that harbored the graves of millions of war dead? Is it inconceivable that, as a people, we might be more skeptical about the use of armed force to resolve political disputes or to redress grievances no matter how legitimate?

The massed graves of dead soldiers that dot the landscape of Europe serve to admonish subsequent generations not to go lightly to war. In the United States, only the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, by marshaling the names of more than 58,000 individuals whose lives were lost in military service, conveys a similar message.

But once having decided to send men and women off to kill and quite likely die, a nation more in touch with the grim realities of warfare might at least have the grace to keep those troops out of smarm's way by rejecting the easy rhetoric of superficial patriotism.

Instead, we have politicians who dare not ask the rest of us to make any tangible sacrifices consistent with what it means to be a nation at war. Despite the soaring price tag of the Iraq war, there is to be no retreat from the pursuit of tax cuts principally benefiting those households whose children are least likely to be found in uniform.

Meanwhile, private charity and the generosity of neighbors have become indispensable to meeting the material needs of the families of service personnel stationed abroad on extended duty. To the family of a stock-broker killed in the World Trade Center attack, a federally funded program dispenses millions of dollars. But for the next-of-kin of those men and women in uniform who make the "ultimate sacrifice," a grateful government pays a tax-free "death gratuity" of $12,000.

If government reflects society, ours is not a nation that truly grasps what war is.


For information about the author, click on Jock O'Connell
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