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May 26, 2008

Living With Ghosts

“Success has a thousand parents, but failure is an orphan”. The line kept tugging on the shirtsleeves of my mind the other day as I reviewed the history of Memorial Day. In many ways it could have been written expressly about this most contrary of American celebrations, for Memorial Day has become a strange and contradictory rite.

Originally known as Decoration Day, as first conceived it was something of a solemn occasion: a day set aside for the remembrance of our Civil War dead. The ritual set on those long ago Decoration Days was the adornment of veterans’ gravestones with flowers. General John A. Logan formalized this tradition by issuing General Order #11 on May 5th, 1868. In the beginning, Columbus, Miss.; Macon, Ga.; Richmond, Va.; Boalsburg, Pa.; and Carbondale, Ill., argued amongst themselves over which was the true birthplace of Decoration Day. Using the uniquely impeccable logic which persists to this day, Congress resolved this dispute by awarding the coveted prize to Waterloo, N.Y.

By World War I, Decoration Day became Memorial Day – a day for honoring not just Civil War dead but veterans who had perished in all wars fought on our behalf. To understand how we got from there to the point where Memorial Day is more about a three day weekend, the emergence of white shoes and the smell of mesquite chips on Dad’s gas grill requires another look at that quotation at the beginning of this piece.

The War Between the States, like the current conflict upon which we stand engaged, was not a popular war. It deeply divided this nation, deeply divided even the Union, which endured bitter conscription riots and an assassinated President. Unlike the reconciliation that came afterwards, unlike the first Decoration Day observances in the newly conquered Confederacy where Southern belles decked the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers with freshly cut flowers, no one rushed to take the credit for war and the death, horror, and destruction that came with it. So it is perhaps not surprising that the more affluent and comfortable we have become, the farther we have gotten from the shared grief and exhaustion that followed those earlier wars, the more reluctant we become to be reminded of something so unpleasant as death.

And yet there are good reasons why we should remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, though they may make us momentarily uncomfortable. Jules Crittenden writes, in “On Dying and Continuing to be Alive” of the horrible cost of living with ghosts:

“We Are Soldiers Still” will include the story of John Eade, which was still untold when Moore and Galloway wrote the first book.* Eade’s story makes a good Memorial Day story, because it is as much about honoring the dead and how they died as it is about surviving. Eade told me once he spent decades entirely apart from his military life, not having any contact with other Ia Drang vets or taking part in 7th Cav reunions. “You have to realize, all my friends were dead,” Eade said in his usual matter of fact way. It was a stunning commentary on what happened to Eade’s youth, and it hit like a blow, a little insight into what living on must be like.

War does strange and terrible things to people; and not just to those who fight in it, but to those who are left behind: to those who wait, and watch, and hope. War is a crucible. Into it we go, whether we will or no. What will emerge once war has performed its dark alchemy is something no one can foresee. Some emerge broken, some numb. Some detach to protect themselves. Some become passionately engaged. For some, war burns all the impurities away until only the true gold is left:

No sleep for 48 hours. Grimy, unshaven, filthy uniform. Canteens loose, dogtags hanging out, pocket unbuttoned, helmet strap hanging.

No insignia of rank, sleeves up.

Dirty fingernails.

His bayonet is fixed; trigger finger alert and ready for action.
Lt. Rick Rescorla, Platoon Leader, B Co 2/7 Cav in Bayonet Attack on the morning of 16 Nov 1965(1)

This is not a posed shot; this is a man moving forward into combat. Eyes forward. Ready.

On that day,
The PAVN Commander knows that he had severely weakened and damaged the defenders in the Charlie Co sector the previous morning. What he does not know is that a fresh company - B Co 2nd Bn 7th Cav, had taken over the position after that engagement. That company, unmolested the previous afternoon, had cut fields of fire, dug new foxholes, fired in artillery concentrations, carefully emplaced it's machine guns and piled up ammunition(1).

Rescorla directed his men to dig foxholes and establish a defense perimeter. Exploring the hilly terrain beyond the perimeter, he came under enemy fire. After nightfall, he and his men endured waves of assault. To keep morale up, Rescorla led the men in military cheers and Cornish songs throughout the night(2).

Rescorla knew war. His men did not, yet. To steady them, to break their concentration away from the fear that may grip a man when he realizes there are hundreds of men very close by who want to kill him, Rescorla sang. Mostly he sang dirty songs that would make a sailor blush. Interspersed with the lyrics was the voice of command: "Fix bayonets - on liiiiine?reaaaa-dy - forward." It was a voice straight from Waterloo, from the Somme, implacable, impeccable, impossible to disobey. His men forgot their fear, concentrated on his orders and marched forward as he led them straight into the pages of history.(3)
The PAVN assaults four separate times beginning at 4:22 AM. The last is at 6:27 AM. They are stopped cold, losing over 200 dead. B Co has 6 wounded. At 9:55 AM, a sweep outward is made which results in more enemy dead and the position secured(1).

The next morning, Rescorla took a patrol through the battlefield, searching for American dead and wounded. As he looked over a giant anthill, he encountered an enemy machine-gun nest. The startled North Vietnamese fired on him, and Rescorla hurled a grenade into the nest. There were no survivors(2).

Rescorla and Bravo company were evacuated by helicopter. The rest of the battalion marched to a nearby landing zone. On the way, they were ambushed, and Bravo company was again called in for relief. Only two helicopters made it through enemy fire. As the one carrying Rescorla descended, the pilot was wounded, and he started to lift up. Rescorla and his men jumped the remaining ten feet, bullets flying at them, and made it into the beleaguered camp. As Lieutenant Larry Gwin later recalled the scene, "I saw Rick Rescorla come swaggering into our lines with a smile on his face, an M-79 on his shoulder, his M-16 in one hand, saying, 'Good, good, good! I hope they hit us with everything they got tonight - we'll wipe them up.' His spirit was catching. The enemy must have thought an entire battalion was coming to help us, because of all our screaming and yelling."(2)
"My God, it was like Little Big Horn," recalls Pat Payne, a reconnaissance platoon leader. "We were all cowering in the bottom of our foxholes, expecting to get overrun. Rescorla gave us courage to face the coming dawn. He looked me in the eye and said, 'When the sun comes up, we're gonna kick some ass.' "

Rick Rescorla may seem like an odd story for a Memorial Day post. You see, he didn’t die in VietNam. He didn’t die in any war. And then again, in a very real sense, to me he exemplifies the reason why Memorial Day is so important.

One gets the sense that Rescorla was already a remarkable man before he went to war. But reading the account of his final hours, one hears the echoes of his long-dead comrades, the far off reverberations of a thought that has occupied the minds of countless soldiers since the dawn of time: we are, in the inevitable course of events, all marked to die.

About that, we have no choice. The question is, how many of us will die well? Dick Cavett once said that no one "gives" his life for his country in war. It is ripped away from him.

It is by remembering stories like Rick Rescorla's that we see the falseness of that statement. Death is inevitable. But living with ghosts reminds us that we may still choose the manner of our death; and more importantly, that we owe a debt greater than we can ever repay to men long gone and mostly forgotten.

We owed them more.

.. we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Posted by Cassandra at May 26, 2008 09:54 AM

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"With malice toward none; with 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 his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

A. Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 26, 2008 10:31 AM

You have done it again Cass, thank you.

Posted by: Sluggo at May 26, 2008 01:57 PM

I have Rick Rescoral's bigraphy "Heart of a Soldier" and one of the moving scenes is of an induction ceremony at Fort Benning honoring Rick , and after the ceremony Rick and a couple of old friends went to Rick's room with a bottle of Maker's Mark to reminisce. Rick was being treated for cancer and one of his friends had had a heart attack. Rick said, "Look at us. We're going to die as old men with people spoon-feeding us and changing our diapers. Men like us shouldn't go out like this. We're supposed to die in some desperate battle, performing great deeds.

Posted by: Billmax at May 26, 2008 05:34 PM

I feel awful that I didn't have time to write something better for Memorial Day. I barely had time to get this posted and had no time to check it for errors - haven't even read it over to see if it makes any sense.

But I think what we were doing was more important. Anyway, it is good to be home.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 26, 2008 07:59 PM


It make plenty of sense. Thanks.

And special thanks to your father, your husband, and so many other men and women, living and dead, who have given the best years of their lives, and sometimes all, in service to that greater cause, "....that this government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth".

Rick went out the way he wanted to go out, in a manner of speaking. Where do we get such men?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 26, 2008 08:09 PM

I saw this weekend that America is still producing them. It is an awesome and a sobering thought. May we always be worthy of them.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 26, 2008 09:22 PM

If I may glom off Don's comment...

Thanks to you Milady, to your gentlemen, and to all who serve... past and present.

Posted by: bthun at May 26, 2008 10:04 PM

I have read Rick's story of his final hours several times over the years. It has given me peace, comfort and hope. We have added him to the roster of heroes at Chez Engineer.

Posted by: Cricket at May 26, 2008 10:27 PM

Dick Cavett once said that no one "gives" his life for his country in war. It is ripped away from him. -- Cavett

An oversimplification for the sake of a sound bite.

But living with ghosts reminds us that we may still choose the manner of our death... -- Cassandra

You've twigged it.

The machinegunner or rifleman who remains at his post while it is being overrun, continuing to provide covering fire to withdrawing comrades is offering his life for theirs.

The pilot who holds his crippled aircraft aloft to clear a friendly position, extending his glide until he knows it is too late to eject is offering his life for theirs.

The machinist who stays to repair a pump in a flooding engine room while his shipmates evacuate forward and close the watertight doors is offering his life for theirs.

The "giving" lies in the *offering* -- and, sometimes, the offering is accepted...

Posted by: BillT at May 27, 2008 05:40 AM

> “Success has a thousand parents, but failure is an orphan”

Unless it's in Iraq, folks....

Unless it's in Iraq.

Posted by: OBloody Hell at June 2, 2008 03:39 PM


I saw (somewhere - can't recall right now) a post that used the same phrase right after I wrote this. I think it might have been a VDH post - I thought it was so funny I mentioned it to my husband. I meant to find it again and link it.

I'll have to see if I can recall where I saw it.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 2, 2008 03:43 PM

"I'll have to see if I can recall where I saw it."

*sniff sniff*
Is that smoke I smell?

Posted by: DL Sly at June 2, 2008 04:02 PM


Posted by: Cassandra at June 2, 2008 04:06 PM