There are several stories about the origin of the three-shot volley fired at military funerals.
Some go back to ancient Rome. At the end of the day of battle, one story goes, when the field was cleared, those removing a fallen soldier would say his name three times in honor of his sacrifice. Then there’s the one about Roman mourners casting dirt on a coffin three times, constituting a burial.
The story I like goes back to the dynastic wars in Europe. The custom was for both sides to halt fighting periodically so the dead could be removed. Once the task was completed, three musket shots were fired as a signal that the battle could resume.
There are a couple of ways of looking at that story.
The darker way is to conclude that we are doomed to suffer war forever, with but momentary lulls to assess the damage and pick up the pieces. In the long run, it may be true that “war has never solved anything,” but in the short term it always has been and always will be the way humans rearrange their power dynamics.
The slightly less bleak way is to observe that, as the generations come and go and soldiers fall to be replaced by other soldiers, the causes being fought for will endure. And the greatest struggle of all, between freedom and tyranny, will never be resolved. Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s declaration, there will never be an “end to history” in that regard.
How are we to judge the soldiers in all these wars? Do we hold them accountable if history judges unjust the cause they fought for? Or do we consider them blameless, prisoners of the regimes that send them out to fight and die?
The latter, according to Just War Theory, a philosophy that attempts to define standards for beginning a war, conducting a war and dealing with war’s aftermath by the victor.
The middle part, though the hardest to comprehend, may be the most important. It holds that a soldier is not responsible for the war he is waging, but can be held accountable for the way the war is conducted. No targeting of civilians. Proportionality in responses. Military necessity for all actions.
It might seem contradictory, holding on to rules of civilized behavior in the midst of the savage, depraved enterprise that is war. But it is the only way to affirm our basic humanity. We acknowledge that we cannot avoid sometimes reverting to barbarousness, but we will cling to our aspirations of decency.
That is why combatants are not supposed to harm soldiers who have surrendered. It is why there are international rules for the treatment of prisoners of war. It is why we honor all soldiers once they are in the grave, whatever and whomever they fought for – at least 108 million of them in the 20th century alone, some estimates say as many as 1 billion in the history of the world.
As another Memorial Day approaches, there is a supreme irony. An independent commission is recommending dismantling the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
It’s one more piece of the modern attempt to erase every shred of the Confederacy from the national memory. Statues are being toppled. Schools, national parks and military bases are being renamed. The sons and daughters of the South must forever pay for the sins of their fathers in supporting the losing side. The victors are not only writing the history books but rewriting them with vengeful glee.
It’s what some have called “presentism,” judging the past by today’s standards, and what Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called “the sin of contemporaneity,” judging our ancestors lacking for not sharing the views we now hold.
But surely even the most fervent in the anti-Confederacy movement might wonder if removing the Arlington memorial would be a step too far.
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, sprang from The Civil War. Several cities claim to have originated it, but there is general agreement that it started in the South, by women who put memorials on Confederate soldiers’ graves, then began putting them on Union graves, too.
In July 1866, a New York newspaper reported that Union veteran Gen. John A Logan railed in a speech against the “traitors in the South” who were “strewing flowers upon the graves of Rebel soldiers.” Two years later, he proposed the first nationwide public Decoration Day holiday on May 30.
Whatever Logan intended, the national holiday did not remain a sectarian slap at the South. It soon became a way for Americans to move beyond the passions that had led to war, to close our divide and move on as a united country. Americans were heeding the words of Lincoln in his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none and charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right. Let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan – to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
It is said that time heals all wounds. But apparently, when enough time has passed, it makes some want to reopen old wounds. We have removed our dead from the field, and the three volleys have sounded. Let the battle continue.