Yesterday we here in the United States celebrated Memorial Day remembering and honoring our war dead. The day originally began right after the Civil War and was seen as a way for the entire nation to honor their war dead, no matter which side. The month of May was chosen because flowers would be available nationwide.
It wasn’t until Lyndon Johnson that the holiday was designated to celebrate our dead from all our wars.
There were the usual speeches, the contents of which we have all heard before and following a similar pattern.
Those who came before us fought for this land and bequeathed this country to us and it our duty to defend it from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
We are a great nation and the envy of all others.
We are a democracy where everyone has a voice and all can make a contribution to the nation no matter their circumstance.
Our military is the finest in the world and our soldiers will defeat anyone. They are driven by love of country and they will lay down their lives in its defense. Death before dishonor.
Their families will be honored by a grateful nation; offered comfort, not condolences. They will take pride in the bravery of their sons who will be forever remembered.
The sons of the fallen will carry the burden of living up to their honored father’s legacy and his widow will take pride in her husband’s sacrifice.
This is the outline of the standard speech given by leaders when it comes to honoring war dead. Weather you realize it or not nations have been hearing that speech for 2,500 years.
It was the close of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Athens, no stranger to war, finds itself mourning those who had fallen on the field of battle, the sons and fathers lost. As was customary in Athens the bodies of the deceased had been collected and displayed under a tent for three days. During this time, various citizens paid tribute and the families were allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones. After the tree days, a funeral procession would be held where an esteemed citizen would make some small speech on behalf of the lost. And so it was around the year 430 BC that Pericles would be selected to address Athens.
The speech that Pericles delivers is such a dramatic departure from the customary oration that it is often considered a eulogy of Athens itself. Pericles begins by mentioning the struggles of the Athenian ancestors whom “…after many a struggle transmitted to us their sons this great empire.” And what an empire it might appear to be. Pericles goes to great lengths to detail the glory and the esteem of the Athenian empire.
With a government that pursues liberty and gives power to the many and not the few, Athenian democracy has become a model for success for all the Greek city-states. A system of government where the weak are empowered and public office is achieved through merit and not a matter of privilege. Pericles describes that in Athens any man, no matter his station in life, can find a way to strive within society. Pericles explains…
“Neither is poverty an obstacle but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.”
Pericles continues by recounting the several military conquests and how their army is considered to be far superior than any other the ancient world can produce. Even the Spartans who come upon their land often find themselves retreating from Athenian spears. And the brave Athenian soldiers, even when fighting on foreign soil, have little trouble overcoming their adversaries. Pericles continues by declaring that Athens also excels in times of peace, holding several games and sacrifices throughout the year. It would appear that the empire of Athens has found prosperity in all measures of life. Pericles says himself…
“To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state.”
Pericles gives another explanation by explaining that the merits of the great city reflect the merits of the lost. And the greatness of Athens is only possible through bloody sacrifice and steeled determination.
“I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had when faced with war, these soldiers chose death over dishonor, glory over cowardice.”
Pericles considers this bravery to be the truest form of a mans worth. He spends ample time detailing the fear that must have raced through their minds, and how they swiftly abandoned that fear for courage and valor – the courage to do it.
A rather eloquent and concise summary of a warriors sacrifice, Pericles subtly mourns the lost men while taking note of their willingness to lay down their lives for the homeland. This message has been repeated through the ages. ‘We mourn them yes, but their sacrifice is not in vain…’ is a timeless message reappearing throughout thousands of years of human history.
“And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory. “So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue.”
Pericles offered not condolences to the loved ones of the fallen.
“Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning, and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed.”
“Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you. When a man is gone, all are wont to praise him, and should your merit be ever so transcendent, you will still find it difficult not merely to overtake, but even to approach their renown. The living have envy to contend with, while those who are no longer in our path are honored with a goodwill into which rivalry does not enter.
We and all nations have heard this speech over and over from our leaders for the past 2,500 years.
Our ancestors fought and died for this land. Our nation is the greatest. Our government sublime offering opportunity to all. Our war dead are to be honored, their parents proud. Their children tasked to equal their father’s greatness. Their widowed wives will live in glory.
Despite the words of Pericles, Athens would suffer greatly in the coming years. The Peloponnesian war would continue for several years. Untold numbers would die and Athens itself would suffer a great plague and an eventual defeat at the hands of the Spartans. It is fortunate however that the great city would be allowed to live and eventually recover.
In my 76 years of life this nation has known no peace. We hear Pericles words again and again.
The best way to honor the dead is to remember them……and work for peace.