Anecdotal reflections on
September 11, 2002

I was asked to speak at a first-anniversary commemoration, at Bluffton College (now Bluffton University), of the September 11 attacks, possibly because I had also spoken at a service immediately after them.

I was unable to think of anything suitable to say, so (as is often appropriate) I fell back on the words of others. I assembled five quotations, in the order that follows. I think I know what they sum to, but if I knew for sure, I'd have been able to say it myself, wouldn't I?


Walt Whitman, from Specimen Days

Alexander Gardner, 'The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter -- Gettysburg' (Library of Congress) In one of the fights before Atlanta, a rebel soldier, of large size, evidently a young man, was mortally wounded top of head, so that the brains partially exuded. He lived three days, lying on his back on the spot where he first dropt. He dug with his heel in the ground during that time a hole big enough to put in a couple of ordinary knapsacks. He just lay there in the open air, and with little intermission kept his heel going night and day. Some of our soldiers then moved him to a house, but he died in a few minutes.
This passage was selected and set to music by Ned Rorem in his song cycle "War Scenes." It was from that song cycle that I obtained it.


Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est"

John Singer Sargent, 'Gassed'
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: "Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."

Taken from Harry Rusche's "Lost Poets of the Great War" Wilfred Owen page, Emory University.


A US Marine after two days of battle on Eniwetok, National Archives

Ralph G. Martin, from The GI War, 1941-1945

This happened somewhere in the Pacific theater, possibly on Iwo Jima.
You bury what you find, and they found a foot, with a Marine boot on it, a serial number on its tongue. They buried it in a proper grave with proper honors. Then came orders to exhume the foot. Its owner was in a Saipan hospital, still alive. The conduct of war has a firm set of rules: you can't bury the same soldier twice.


Siegfried Sassoon, "The Redeemer"

Artist unknown to me DARKNESS: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.

I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell's unholy shine.

No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore--an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he'll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die

That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.
He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: 'O Christ Almighty, now I'm stuck!'

Taken from William J. Bean's Siegfried Sassoon website. Poem © Columbia University


Abraham Lincoln, from his 2nd Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

Timothy O'Sullivan, 'Incidents of the war. A harvest of death, Gettysburg, July, 1863', Library of Congress Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. ... The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ... Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."


A postscript

Sgt. William Teicholz on his Sherman tank, from 'Sgt William Teicholz, 3rd Armored Division' website
During the question period, I used the following story to respond to a repetition of the cant that war can never produce a good result. I don't remember the source of the story, so I repeat it (as nearly as possible) as I told it on September 11, 2002.
Just War is an unpopular position. It's ambiguous and messy, and you never know whether you're doing the right thing.

A philosopher was defending Just War to a meeting somewhere in New England, and having a rough time of it, when an old man stood up in the back. The old man said, I have been playing with a major symphony orchestra for the past fifty years and I have heard a lot of beautiful music in my life. I want to tell you about the most beautiful music I have ever heard.

Oh, great, thought our philosopher. Here we go again...

The most beautiful music I have ever heard, said the old man, was the sound of American tanks approaching the concentration camp where I was being held as a boy, because it meant that I would live to grow up.

The story, told by the original author, is at the bottom of this web page.


4/2/2003

While I am not a pacifist, and am ambivilent about rather than opposed to the current unpleasantness, we need to keep the consequences of our actions firmly in mind.


Copyright © 2003 by Daniel J. Berger. This work may be copied without limit if its use is to be for non-profit educational purposes. Such copies may be by any method, present or future. The author requests only that this statement accompany all such copies. All rights to publication for profit are retained by the author.


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