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We gather today amid monuments commemorating the generations who lie at rest here. Among them, stretching up this rise and along the edge of Mill Creek are the graves of nearly 200 who served their country in the armed services. Cold and silent stone they may be, but those monuments speak to us, reminding us of those lives - their hopes and fears, their ordinary lives and extraordinary accomplishments.
Just a few weeks ago American and British troops swept across the plains of Iraq passing by some of the oldest monuments of humankind's oldest civilization. Though half-buried by the sand and weathered by 4,000 years, those ancient monuments are not far different from the stones that surround us here. They, too, mark the hopes and fears, the dreams and the reality of their generations. There, in the sands of the Middle East stands what is thought to be the oldest man-made monument on earth, and it is a monument commemorating a war. So, for thousands of years people have raised monuments such as these that remind us of both humankind's greatest efforts of valor and far-sighted vision and also humankind's greatest failures of war and limited vision.
These monuments that stretch back to the beginning of civilization challenge us. How do we honor those who risked their very lives and how do we celebrate such personal and national virtues of valor without celebrating war itself? Perhaps those whom we commemorate today may help us to sort out that subtle but vital difference in our celebration. So, let these monuments speak to us, giving voice to our own thoughts and prayers.
Listen to Andrew White, writing from basic training in July 1861 as the United States split into ugly civil war. He speaks with all the enthusiasm of youth enticed by the glamour of troops on parade.
I have just got back from drill...You wanted to know how I liked it...It is getting very warm here...and we are getting rather tired of it...When our three months are up we will have a fine time coming home...Our uniforms are blue. They look first rate. We will have them whole and clean to come home in. I do not think there is any chance of us getting into a fight now. I think that we will stay here till our time is out.
With flags snapping in the breeze and uniforms crisply pressed, it is tempting to celebrate the trappings of military might and leave it at that. But no one knows better that the troops themselves that war is another matter altogether. Companies C and D of the 96th Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Infantry, recruited from Millburn, saw some of the deadliest battles of the Civil War from Murfreesboro, Chickamauga and Keneshaw Mountain to Atlanta. George Cheever Dodge saw most of that action and wrote from the front in April 1863. Perhaps because he was writing to a fellow soldier, David Minto, he did not hold back the truth of war.
We walked faster than I was at all disposed to, for one or two hours without stopping to rest after we were fairly on the way. Soon after crossing that pontoon bridge (I suppose you know where it is) we came upon a dead horse, and little farther on lay a dead man stretched out on the grass. It was a hard sight to me, even if he was a rebel. Still further on one of our boys, an orderly of the 40th Ohio lay under a tree dead, with a cap on his face. On our way out we passed some eight or ten dead rebels and I guess as many dead horses. These sights are unpleasant but we are here, and have come here with the intention of killing as many rebels as we can, unless they will submit, and I haven't changed my mind yet, if it is hard work, just as long as my health will permit. I mean to stick it if I live. Ain't I patriotic?
That last self-deprecating sentence saves Dodge from any callous boasting of war's grim realities. And from his matter-of-fact detailing of war's horror emerges the human spirit's refusal to be defeated by war's brutality, that rises above the easy slogans to embrace our common humanity, that refuses to lose sight, even in the confusion of battle, of a greater striving for goodwill, dignity and peace for all. So Thomas Hardy muses in the midst of war's horror:
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead because -
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was,
That's clear enough; although.
He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like - just as I -
Was out of work - had sold his traps -
No other reason why.
Yes; quaint and curious war is.
You shoot a fellow down
You'd greet if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.
Let one last voice speak to us from these monuments that stretch across the generations. George Smith writes to his sister at home here in Millburn as he is being mustered out at Camp Douglas in Chicago in June of 1865. This war may be over, but there are new sorts of battle to wage Smith realizes.
Well we had a grand reception here in Chicago. Tumbling onto freight cars at Nashville and coming about two thirds of the trip on them rather disheartened us, [but a] grand reception the citizens of Chicago give us...all with smiling faces and cheering us as we passed, crying welcome home. [There was] many of moistened eyes as they noticed how few our numbers and how bones are now bleaching on many a battlefield. As we thought of this every man knew that he had done his duty...This is the only thing that ever can repay a soldier. Money's no object. A soldier's wealth is honor. A true sense that we've done our duty etc. and deserve this heartfelt welcome makes one step light even though heavy with dust...We expect to be payed off on Tuesday. After that, look out for an attack at any moment. Your affectionate etc., George E. Smith, Jun.
So George Smith and all his comrades across the generations set out for one last attack, this time to build the future. What we really celebrate here today is that indomitable spirit that insists that war will not be humankind's last word, that beyond the strategies of the generals and the march of armies there is an unquenchable spirit that sets out to rebuild all that humanity's folly tears down. As these monuments enlist our commemoration today, let George Smith's words become our battle cry for the future: "Lookout for that attack at any moment."