Monday, May 29, 2006


In the middle of Belleau Wood the light fades quickly as evening falls. To my right the dank undergrowth stretches away from ground broken by distorted whorllike shapes . The centers are depressed and dark, but the edges are raised and gray, like scar tissue knitting around an old wound. These are the collapsed remains of German rifle pits. Beside them, black and silent, stands a line of elderly artillery pieces, some German, some French.

To my left the woodland rises in a gentle, swiftly darkening slope. And all around are the slender larches, straight, well-spaced trees, many with trunks grooved by bullets, sliced by shrapnel. My attention becomes fixed, though, on the monument.

It is dominated by the muscular back of a man, shown in strong relief. Cast in a creamy bronze, the figure moves away from the viewer, from right to left. From what can be seen of the face comes an impression not of individual personality but of implacable will. He wears the kettle helmet of World War One. In his strong hands he holds an Enfield rifle with bayonet fixed.

As the shadows deepen, the dark polished stone that holds this bronze relief shades into the middle distance. Gradually the marine seems to come alive, as if he has just emerged unscathed from the rifle pits behind him and is pressing on, deeper into Belleau Wood.

On battlefields around the world stand monuments that are anodyne or peaceful or plain absurd; monuments that are wrapped in longing or regret; monuments that are patriotic, religious or triumphant; and some that are decaying and neglected, as if they marked a secret shame.

The marine who lives in Belleau Wood is unique. He is stripped to the waist, his naked flesh exposed to the maiming and violent death, a raw expression of the savagery of hand-to-hand fighting. He is looking to kill or be killed.

Over the years I have visited more than fifty places where Americans have fought their country's wars: Wake Island in the shimmering heat...Shiloh in the summer rain...the Shuri line when the earth was still lumpy with unexploded ordnance...Omaha Beach...San Jacinto...Inchon...the Little Bighorn...the steep forest of the Argonne...Gettysburg...New Orleans...Guam...Put-in-Bay...Lexington Green... All different, all the same.

Different because each battlefield tells its own story. The same because at all of them the visitor feels the claim thay make on us, those men of the monuments. In Belleau Wood as evening darkened the ground where I stood while the sky overhead shone a bright silver and pearl-shaded blues, the breeze down the Valley of the Marne rustled the treetops. "Rappelez-vous... rappeleez-vous," the leaves seemed to murmer. "Remember...remember...."

-Geoffrey Perret, Introduction to "A Country Made By War," 1989.

Your sacrafice yesterday permits my gratitude today.
Thank you, you men of monuments.
I will not forget you.


portia said...

And when this ceremony is concluded, and all of us have gone on our way, the Honor Guard will keep watch over the Tomb. Every hour of every day, on the coldest nights, in the hardest rain, there is a sentinel of the 3rd U.S. Infantry standing guard. The soldiers entrusted with that duty count it a privilege. And, today, as we reflect on the men and women who have died in the defense of America, all of us count it a privilege to be citizens of the country they served.

--Remarks by President Bush at Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Day Commemoration Arlington National Cemetery May 31, 2004

portia said...

Thank you, you men of monuments.


Anonymous said...

My grandfather was at Belleau Wood, way back when (not as a Marine, though, as the Marines were not the only Americans there), and his son, my uncle, fought over a lot of the same ground a generation later, as part of 3rd Army.
My Dad was in the Other war, the hot, stinky,dirty war in the Pacific

....Lest we forget.

-Don Brouhaha

Cassandra said...

Soldier, rest! Thy warfare o'er
Dream of fighting fields no more:
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.

- Walter Scott

camojack said...

Amen and amen.