The Honored Dead

We can debate the morality and prudence of our wars, but we also can be grateful to those who fought and died before most of us were even born.

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When our children were very young and their curiosity awakened by wonders far and near, they would often ask about the world their father inhabited before he had the good sense to meet and marry their mother. “So, Papa, what exactly did you do in the war?” They meant the Vietnam War, of course, since even they were not so clueless as to imagine that their father had been alive during any of the earlier ones. I wish I’d had the wit when asked to remember the fellow whose answer was that he’d tried his best to prevent the damn thing.  

I did nothing of the sort. Instead, I allowed myself to go off and actually fight in the damn thing, returning perfectly safe after twelve boring months sandwiched between working a typewriter and driving a jeep. Not exactly the stuff of high heroic romance. 

Which is why I pretty much invented my own private war, telling great whopping lies about pitched battles amid enemy-infested jungles from which I would triumphantly emerge covered in blood and glory. So entirely preposterous were the tales I spun that I’d routinely include harrowing accounts of internment camps where I’d invariably have to shoot my way out while saving hundreds of fellow prisoners, whose undying gratitude I’d make light of before my spellbound children.

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They all found it endlessly enthralling, of course, and they believed every word of it. Sooner or later, however, the tall tales would have to stop and the truth be told. Which was that I hadn’t done a single heroic thing the entire time I was there.  

And it wasn’t just the sheer implausibility of the narrative that convinced me to stop making things up. I think I’d have kept the mythology going even if none of them believed a word of it. What persuaded me to stop was the growing realization that, up against the evidence of real heroism among the soldiers I knew who had actually fought and bled in ’Nam, what I was doing amounted to a kind of profanation. And if not that exactly, then certainly a trivializing of the sufferings real soldiers were forced to endure.

It was the example of one soldier in particular that demolished the whole house of cards, leaving me completely speechless in the face of an almost unimaginable act of heroism. His name was Bill Morgan, a friend and classmate from high school who entered a year or so after graduation in 1966 to become a United States Marine. It was a death sentence, of course, consummated two years later in a place called Quang Tri Province in the Republic of Vietnam.

Only he never saw it that way (nor did I), preferring to think of it as simple patriotism or, to frame it in an old-fashioned way, a willingness to serve the nation he loved, which extended to a brave and beleaguered ally, even at the cost of losing his own life. Which is precisely what happened on February 25, 1969, in the middle of a firefight against a vastly superior force.

Seeing his entire squad pinned down, including two wounded members taking heavy artillery fire, he somehow managed to divert the enemy’s attention while drawing fire upon himself, thus enabling his men not only to retrieve the wounded but to defeat the enemy. It was then that he was killed.  

For such gallantry beyond the call of duty, Corporal William David Morgan was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest possible accolade, presented at the White House by President Richard Nixon on August 6, 1970, to the family that survived him.

When I first read the account, I was moved to tears. This really was that rarest of tributes, a Congressional Medal of Honor, no greater recognition than which can a grateful nation bestow. Only the nation seemed not especially grateful, much of it remaining bitterly divided about the war, including perhaps many who knew Bill Morgan. That may explain why it took so long for the news to reach some of us; and by the time it did, not everyone wanted to remember the sacrifice he and others made, fighting a war almost everyone by then agreed was a costly and terrible mistake. 

But let us at least agree that it was all a long time ago and that those of us who survived it are by now fairly long in the tooth. In fact, of the two wounded marines who, thanks to Bill Morgan’s courage and initiative, lived to fight another day, neither is alive today. One cannot help but wonder what difference it all made to them in the long years that followed. Did they live differently, knowing that the whole trajectory of their lives had changed decisively on that fateful day in February, that nothing would ever be the same again?   Did they live differently, knowing that the whole trajectory of their lives had changed decisively on that fateful day in February, that nothing would ever be the same again? Tweet This

No one knows. But here is something we need to know. How are we to memorialize the men who were sent over there to fight? Men who did not run off to Canada or falsify medical records to escape the draft, but men who answered the call and went off to war as did so many men before them? 

We know that fifty-five thousand of them did not return, their names inscribed on a slab of black marble that fewer and fewer Americans care to visit, or can even remember where to find. Is that part of a larger forgetfulness, I wonder, ever more endemic to a people whose handle on the past is less secure than their forbears’? Solzhenitsyn’s warning comes to mind here, even as it becomes ever more doubtful that many will even recall his name. “A people that no longer remembers,” he wrote, “has lost its history and its soul.”

The soul and its storehouse of memory are not so easily recovered, are they? Like the two wounded warriors Corporal Morgan succeeded in saving, it takes real effort to keep alive the historical memory, to preserve the soul of a nation. I’m not so sure we have the spittle for it. But we have got to try and make a start all the same.  

To that end, there is one thing we can do. We can be grateful to those who fought and died before most of us were even born. Vietnam was a miserable war to be sure; and perhaps, who knows, it was ill-advised from the start. But for all that, the lives of many thousands of young men were lost fighting it. Having been privileged to know young men like Bill Morgan, who represented the best in America, I am not prepared to say that it was all for naught, that these brave men died in vain. 


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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