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May 25, 1998
Rev. Paul R. Meltzer, Pastor
Millburn Congregational Church

This is the centennial year of one of America's nearly forgotten wars - the Spanish American War. It is nearly forgotten because it was so brief. But perhaps it has been intentionally forgotten because it was an ambiguous conflict born of noble purpose and sullied by lesser motives. "A splendid little war" is how statesman John Hay described it. It began with Cuba's longing for emancipation from Spain's bungling colonial rule. Just as it appeared that diplomacy would resolve Cuba's independence, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal seized on the events in their own war to sell newspapers, enflaming public opinion in the worst sort of irresponsible "yellow journalism." Then on February 28, 1898, the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. The most recent research in 1969 has determined that a defective boiler caused the explosion, but at the time Hearst and Pulitzer whipped public opinion into a frenzy with calls to "Remember the Maine." After it was all over, President McKinley admitted privately, "But for the enflamed state of public opinion and the fact that Congress could not longer be held in check [and one might add, because of McKinley's own hesitation] a peaceful solution might have been had."

Instead there was war - Hay's "splendid little war." The United States declared war at the end of April. Admiral Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet bottled up in Manila Bay, the Philippines, on May 1, and by July the war was over. The December Peace Treaty guaranteed Cuba's long sought independence from Spain and ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States.

It was far from being a "splendid little war," if any war can be called splendid. America's army was ill-prepared, with men sent to fight a tropical war with only woolen winter uniforms and inadequately armed and trained. Two hundred eighty-nine men died in battle, but nearly 3,800 died of disease. All too quickly those events of 1898 were lost in the slaughter and valor of the world wars and skirmishes of this century, so that those who fought and died in that last war of the Nineteenth century are all but forgotten.

Which is why we gather in places like this each Memorial Day to remember - to remember not just the famous battles and heroes, but the nearly forgotten wars and the ordinary citizens lost in the roll calls of history. We gather here, then, to do two things. We remind ourselves to judge critically the attitude that declares: "War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the people who have the courage to face it." Benito Mussolini said that, and the source alone should make us cautious in celebrating war itself. Memorial Day calls us, rather, to recall General William Tecumseh Sherman's assessment of war born of his personal experience: "I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."

Rather, let us honor those who put aside comfort and security to serve their fellow citizens and whose own dignity, valor and character have hallowed even the most ambiguous purposes and mixed motives of war itself. We can unreservedly salute all who have served and the many who have died so unselfishly.

Even that nearly forgotten war a century ago has left transforming traces that have outlasted the battle details. It was tempting to build an American empire from the spoils of that victory; everyone expected it. But the United States amazed the world by keeping its promise to honor Philippine independence and sovereignty. And those nearly 3,800 casualties of disease: they, too, were not in vain. That brief encounter with tropical scourges led the army's Dr. Walter Reed to identify the cause and treatment of Yellow Fever. When all else has been forgotten, we can remember that.

So let us remember that nearly forgotten conflict and all their comrades of other times and wars and pledge ourselves to rise to their stature:

Sleep on, ye brave! The shrieking shell,
The quaking trench, the startling yell,
The fury of the battle hell
Shall wake you not, for all is well;
Sleep peacefully, for all is well.
Your flaming torch aloft we bear,
With burning heart and oath we swear
To keep the faith, to follow through,
To live with honor just as you.