PROTECTING THE DEAD . . . ON VETERANS’ DAY AND ALL DAYS

Before Veteran’s Day is over, I thought I would repost two passages from my commonplace book that always come to mind on this day.  Both come from Wendell Berry’s marvelous novel Hannah CoulterHannah Coulter is set in the tiny hamlet of Port William and brings that fictional community to life through the memories of an aged farm wife. Chronologically, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter, who did come home but was forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

If this passage speaks to me as the son of one of these “monuments without inscriptions,” a second passage now in my commonplace book speaks to anyone who wishes to take the past seriously. Much earlier in the novel, Hannah shares some of what went through her mind after news arrived of the death of her first husband, Virgil:

Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn’t get mad about Virgil’s death. Who was there to get mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God. What made me mad, and still does, were the people who took it on themselves to speak for him after he was dead. I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say. Was Virgil a hero? In his dying was he willing to die, or glad to sacrifice his life? Is the life and freedom of the living a satisfactory payment to the dead in war for their dying? Would Virgil think so? I have imagined that he would. But I don’t know. Who can speak for the dead? . . .

It’s a powerful question. Who, indeed, can speak for the dead? In a sense, this is exactly what the historian is called to do, to resurrect the dead and give them voice again. And yet, as Hannah realizes, in our fallenness we will be sorely tempted to make the dead agree with us, to speak for us rather than to us. None of us is exempt. It is a temptation that Christians face just as strongly as the most ideologically driven “revisionist.” And when we succumb to it, however noble our motives, Hannah reminds us that what we are doing is preying on the weak. “I don’t mean to be quarrelsome,” she concludes, “but the dead are helpless. . . . The living must protect the dead.”

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