The Discipline of Remembering

Looking ahead is good; but looking back is important too. This Memorial Day I think again of my great-uncle, a young soldier who died from an enemy bullet that lodged in his heart. I bear his name, and his monogrammed gold cuff-links (with our shared initials) sit in a small box at my bedside. It deepens my desire to live well whenever I remember that my freedom was bought with a price, and did not come cheap. The discipline of remembering keeps all of us grateful.

But remembering also brings wisdom. This Memorial Day my thoughts also drift across the Pacific to a rocky fortress at the mouth of Manila Bay in the Philippines. Corregidor Island was the Gibraltar of South-East Asia, and the last piece of soil defended by American and Filipino troops prior to the complete Japanese conquest of the Philippine islands in 1942.

There is a surreal peace and beauty to the island today. Its silence and solitude are a world apart from the madness of Metro Manila just twenty miles away. Fragrant tropical breezes waft the higher altitudes. Ocean vistas open up at every turn; lush jungle vegetation and gorgeous exotic flowers abound.

All this disguises what were scenes of awful bombardment and carnage some sixty years ago. We listened to a presentation in the depths of a tunnel carved in a mountain, where the last Americans and Filipinos bravely held out before their final, inevitable surrender. From our tour bus we looked down at a beautiful tropic beach. It bears no evidence now that upon its sands American POWs were once herded by their Japanese captors and forced to languish in the scorching sun for days. Today tourists cheerfully photograph each other in front of the army dock from which General Douglas MacArthur left under severe fire, vowing in his now-famous words of defiance: “I shall return.”

Beyond this dock lies a broad channel of water, maybe a couple of miles wide, and beyond it, to the north, the Bataan peninsula. The peninsula’s very name is unsettling. It looks innocent enough now, beautiful actually, even majestic in the humid haze of the tropical summer. But this is where thousands of American soldiers, after the final collapse of resistance, were herded along by their merciless captors in the infamous Death March. Those who stumbled in their malnourished fatigue or dysentery were whipped and hacked, or shot to death along the path and their bodies left to decompose.

I have seen pictures of these emaciated POWs. The ribs of once-robust college football players are all exposed, their skin barely stretching to cover their skeletons. Brave but hopeless eyes stare from gaunt sockets. Looking at those faces, and thinking of the countless loved ones who never saw them again, we are able to understand the nature of war more truly.

Later in World War II the Americans returned and reclaimed Corrigedor, but not without more bloodshed. I listened to stories of Japanese soldiers blowing themselves up underground, or deliberately running out the tunnel entrance and into the direct fire of waiting tanks, while others of their compatriots jumped off cliffs to their deaths on the rocks below—driven by a cultural standard of honor that denied them the option of surrender.

Remembering these events, we are better positioned to grasp the wisdom of always regarding war as, at best, a tragic last resort for resolving human conflicts. This is the deep wisdom of our collective experience, and we do well to remember it every year. And maybe the next time some shallow sportscaster dares to compare a NFL football game to a war, thoughtful viewers should call him for trivializing the awful, wasteful, dehumanizing horror of the real thing.

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