Memorializing Iraq and Afghanistan

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

I’d like to begin this morning by talking with you a little bit about the origins of Memorial Day: where and when it started, and for what purpose. And after we talk about the origins of Memorial Day, then I’d like to talk with you about how the situation we find ourselves in today is quite different from time of the origin of Memorial Day, and given the changed situation I’ll speak about how we might adequately memorialize the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Historian David Blight tells us that the first recorded instance of Memorial Day took placed in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. The city of Charleston had been evacuated, and most of the non-combatants remaining in the city were African Americans who could not get out. Also present were the Union troops who had defeated the Confederate Army, and a few white abolitionists.

During the war, the Confederate Army had established a prison camp on the site of a race course in Charleston. 257 Union soldiers had died in that prison camp, and were dumped unceremoniously into a mass grave. In April, 1865, the African American community of Charleston decided to create a proper gravesite for the Union dead buried in that mass grave. They disinterred the bodies from the mass graves, and reinterred them in individual graves; then African American carpenters built a fence around the new grave yard.

To officially open this new grave yard for Civil War dead, the African American community organized a parade of some ten thousand people, including African American schoolchildren and ordinary African American citizens. White Americans were represented by some nearby Union regiments, and some white abolitionists. All these people gathered in the new graveyard. They listened to preachers. They sang songs like “America the Beautiful” and “John Brown’s Body” and old spirituals. And at last they settled down to picnics, and while they ate they could watch the Union regiments march in formation.

That, according to David Blight, was the first recorded celebration of Memorial Day. But times were different then, and that was a very different war from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On his Web site, Blight writes: “At the end of the Civil War the dead were everywhere, some in half buried coffins and some visible only as unidentified bones strewn on the killing fields of Virginia or Georgia.” Today, we don’t see the war dead. The most we might see is a photograph or video of a coffin neatly draped with an American flag, accompanied by soldiers in full dress uniform, being taken off an airplane that has just arrived from overseas. Today, we are not confronted with the physical reality of the bodies of war dead.

When it came to memorializing the war dead, the African American community of Charleston had a straightforward task in 1865: after the fighting was over, create an adequate graveyard, and respectfully reinter the Union war dead into that new graveyard. But we have no such well-defined, concrete tasks. Because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so far away and such a small percentage of the population have actually fought in those wars, memorializing them is not going to be straightforward; and to complicate matters further, the fighting isn’t even over in Afghanistan.

The 2005 poem “Ashbah” by Brian Turner, a talented poet who served in the infantry in Iraq in 2003-2004, captures something of the problem we face.

Click here for the poem “Ashbah” (both the text, and an audio recording of the poet reading the poem).

In the poem, the ghosts of American soldiers are alone and cannot find their way home. Even though they are exhausted, they keep trying to find their way home, unsure which way to go. The Iraqi dead are, of course, already home, and they can watch the American soldiers from a safe perch on the rooftops; but as I imagine the scene, the Iraqi dead would just as soon the American dead would figure out how to get home so that they, the Iraqi dead, could have their streets back.

Now obviously this poem is not literally true. The poet did not see the ghosts of dead Americans literally wandering the streets of Balad, and the Iraqi dead were not literally sitting on the rooftops watching them. But there is symbolic truth in this poem.

For me, part of the symbolic truth in the poem lies in the fact that the war dead of Iraq and Afghanistan remain ghostlike and insubstantial to most Americans. The vast majority of us have not seen the body of someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, I would be willing to bet that the majority of Americans don’t even know someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Although something on the order of six thousand five hundred soldiers have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan [link], this number is tiny compared to the three hundred million people who live in the United States today.

Because so few soldiers have died relative to the total population of the United States, it’s easy for us to spend very little time thinking about the war dead. I don’t want to say that we ignore the war dead; certainly we don’t do that; but we concentrate on other things. Those of us who are politically active might concentrate on advocating for policy changes that will keep us out of another long-term military engagement like Iraq and Afghanistan. Or — and I think this is more likely among us here — those of us who are politically active have turned our attention to problems that seem more pressing, like global climate change or election reform or homelessness in Palo Alto or food security or one of the many ethical and political challenges facing us today. This is not a bad thing: Lord knows, we are faced with a great many pressing problems; and we do the best we can to address those problems, but one person can only do so much. If, for example, you’re going to tackle global climate change, a problem that can be morally and psychologically draining, you may not have much energy left over for other ethical challenges.

We’re doing the best we can to make this world a better place. But most of us have turned out attention away from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as a result, those ghosts of American soldiers that Brian Turner writes about in his poem still wander the streets of Balad by night, still unsure of their way home, still exhausted.

I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about the war dead. I’m not asking you — many of whom work 70 hours a week at your job, take care of your family, volunteer in the community, and work on social justice projects besides — I’m not asking you to do one more thing to make the world a better place. You do enough as it is. But because this is Memorial Day, I would like to remind you of three things we already do that can help memorialize the war dead, and thus help those ghosts of American soldiers find their way home, find rest.


First, as religious people we are not afraid to talk about death and about those who have died. In this, we are quite different from mainstream American society, which prefers to ignore the fact of death. At the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration carefully enforced a long-standing Pentagon ban on media coverage of the arrival of coffins containing dead soldiers from overseas. This Pentagon ban had been in effect since the First Gulf War, and while some critics accused the Bush administration of using the ban for propaganda purposes, it always seemed to me that the Pentagon and the government were also motivated by a typical American squeamishness when it comes to death, a typical American denial of the reality of death.

But as religious people, we are less likely to deny the reality of death. A central part of what we do as religious people is we celebrate rites of passage, including memorial services for those who have died. Many of us here this morning have been in this room for a memorial service; and when we come here on Sunday mornings, we will always be aware of the dual use of this room. The very nature of our religious community helps us be free of the unhealthy American denial of death. Because we don’t deny the reality of death, we are better able to understand that our actions as a nation have resulted in very real deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By confronting the reality of the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are taking a step towards allowing the ghosts in the poem to find their way home, metaphorically speaking. And when those ghosts of American soldiers leave the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, then the Iraqi war dead, and the Afghani war dead, can come down from their roof tops.


Second, as religious people we engage in critical patriotism. Let me explain what I mean by “critical patriotism.”

As religious people, we have a strong allegiance to certain moral and ethical principles, and our allegiance to those moral and ethical principles can be stronger than our allegiance to our nation. For example, as Unitarian Universalists we say that one of our ethical principles is that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. We adopted that particular principle in 1985, but it has roots going back much further than that. That particular ethical principle can trace its roots back to the Golden Rule, a far older ethical principle that states that we shall do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Unitarians and Universalists got the Golden Rule from the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who was reported to have told his followers a form of the Golden Rule some two thousand years ago.

But Jesus did not make up the Golden Rule; he was restating an even older ethical precept that he got from his Jewish upbringing. In the Torah, those Jewish books traditionally supposed to have been written by Moses, in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, it states: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The book of Leviticus is at least two thousand five hundred years old, in its present form, though it is made up of even older material; and surely the Golden Rule is among the older material in the book. Suffice it to say that we are the inheritors of a religious tradition that has affirmed the ideal of this ethical precept for thousands of years.

Obviously, then, our ethical tradition can trace its roots back to well before the founding of the United States. In fact, some of us would say that our ethical principles transcend any one people or nation or moment in history. The Golden Rule has been worded differently at different times, and we further know that there are examples of ethical principles in other cultures that sound a good deal like our Golden Rule. All these are specific manifestations of a general transcendent principle; as a religious people, we owe our allegiance to this transcendent, eternally true ethical principle; and as a religious people, we owe a greater allegiance to this transcendent ethical principle than we do to the relatively short-lived American nation.

Our adherence to such transcendent ethical principles leads us to what I’m calling “critical patriotism.” We do owe patriotic feelings towards the United States; but our patriotic feelings will never overpower our allegiance to our higher ethical precepts. Indeed, the opposite is the case: we must critically examine our country’s actions and policies in light of our higher ethical precepts.

Such critical patriotism allows us to look with open eyes on the reasons and motivations behind our military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we as Americans are not honest about our motivations for going into Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s going to be difficult for those ghosts of American soldiers in the streets of Balad to be able to come home. Critical patriotism allows us to see that some of the reasons for starting these wars could be ethically justified, and other reasons could not be ethically justified; critical patriotism allows us to decide which reasons for war pass muster with our own transcendent ethical principles, and which reasons for war do not pass muster.

This kind of careful ethical examination of the war, and an attendant acceptance of responsibility as American citizens, is one of the things that we as a religious people do as a matter of course. We take the time to reflect upon, and to sort through the enormously complex ethical arguments surrounding the war. And this kind of ethical reflection, this kind of critical patriotism, is another step we take towards allowing the ghosts in the poem to find rest, to find their way home.


Third — and this is a corollary to the last point — we can affirm that religion is an important moral and ethical counterweight to politics. Political decisions are often made from expediency, and made in a hurry, without time for adequate ethical reflection. At its best, organized religion can serve as a metaphorical place where we can take the time to reflect seriously on the ethical implications of political decisions.

One of the reasons that the ghosts of the American soldiers roam the streets of Balad in the poem is that they have not been memorialized by American society, except in the most superficial way. Of course they have been memorialized by their Army buddies, and of course they have been mourned by their families. But wider American society has done little more than assert “We support our troops.” That last statement does not constitute adequate ethical reflection on the death of American soldiers. But by carefully reflecting on the death of American soldiers — and on the death of Iraqi and Afghani civilians, and on the death of other soldiers, for that matter — by such careful reflection, we can lay the metaphorical ghosts to rest.

We can engage in this ethical reflection through our ongoing participation in the democratic process. Most obviously, you and I can engage in ethical reflection through carefully exercising our right to vote. We have a primary election coming up very soon here in California, and the national election is only a few months away. It is our duty as religious people to carefully study the issues in the election, and then to reflect on the moral and ethical implications of those issues, to consider how our vote can be a moral and ethical response to American policy. Of course any vote is going to be something of a compromise — reality never seems to match our transcendent ethical ideals — but with careful reflection, our participation in the democratic process can have a worthwhile moral and ethical outcome.


Back in May of 1865, the African American community of Charleston, South Carolina, had a fairly straightforward task: to memorialize the Civil War dead by disinterring their bodies from a mass grave into a graveyard that was more in keeping with the respect that was due to them. Our task today, memorializing the dead from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not quite so physical and concrete.

But there are some straightforward things we can do to memorialize our war dead. We can be honest about death, and not try to deny the reality of the war dead. We can affirm our transcendent moral and ethical ideals, and in so doing we can engage in a kind of critical patriotism. And finally we can understand our religious ideals as a moral counterweight to politics, so that when we participate in democracy we will have a moral impact on the country.

These are the things we can do to memorialize the war dead. And so, at last, may the ghosts of American soldiers wandering the streets of Balad at night find their way home once again.