Victor Davis Hanson // Claremont Review of Books
n the world of ancient Greece and Rome, collective reverence for the war dead helped explain why hoplites and legionaries fought so fiercely.
The great themes of classical literature are often those of battlefield commemoration. Pericles’ majestic Funeral Oration, the lyric poet Simonides’ epitaph for the fallen at Thermopylae (“Go tell the Spartans…”), Horace’s dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”), the hundreds of elegant casualty lists carefully carved on stone, and the glimpses of funerals for the fallen on red-figure vases—all these remind us that without national commemoration and collective gratitude for the sacrifice of their youth, consensual societies of the past could not offer successful resistance against their more regimented or tribal enemies.
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) believes that proper commemoration still enhances civic responsibility. Accordingly, in Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery he offers three narratives to emphasize how and why America has learned this ancient lesson of honoring the war dead. He relates a regimental motto of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard: “soldiers never die until they are forgotten.” Sacred Duty, focused for the most part on Arlington National Cemetery, is a multifaceted primer in why America so dutifully commemorates her soldiers, and how such formal gratitude contributes to our civic sense of self and to élan among our fighting forces. Or as Cotton, himself an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, puts it in more personal terms: “I…knew that, if I died, my battle buddies would bring me home and the Army would look after my family. That mutual pledge shaped our identity as soldiers and our willingness to fight—and, if necessary, to die—for our country.”