Written by: Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University
For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart.” – Thucydides Pericles Funeral Oration
Many springs ago when I was in college, I would sit in the third floor classroom of the main administrative building listening and learning about the classics of history. I spent considerable time semi-attentive, gazing out of the window at the trees and grass in the gathering warmth of May. Nestled in a broad valley among the mountains of Southwest Virginia, the college was the epitome of the peaceful academic grove.
While we learned about the ancients, the 20thcentury would make itself present in surprising and unexpected ways. Every so often, our quiet world would be disrupted by B-52 bombers flying low overhead. Where they came from I did not know, nor did I know where they were going. Jet engines rattled classroom windows as bombers arrived and cleared across campus. Flying at a time where Cold War tensions were heightened, we knew that these training missions were serious and with purpose. Slightly awoken to the preparations for conflict, the overflights reminded us that our peaceful terrain mirrored more dangerous topography that might have to be navigated in a time of war.
This campus had been touched by war in the past. Among contested ground in the Civil War, it served as a field hospital. The origins of Memorial Day are in the remembrance of that war. Today, the day commemorates the sacrifices made by Americans across the timespan of war and conflict. It also honors those who have died in peacetime while in service to our country.
As I learned back in those classroom days, honoring those who have died in service to their country has deep roots. The quote that opens this blog is attributed to Pericles by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in his writings on the Peloponnesian War. These words were authored some 2,500 years ago in the 5thcentury B.C.E. to mark the conflict between Athens and Sparta.
A rather short passage, Pericles Funeral Oration speaks to the sacrifices made by those in the defense of their country and acknowledges the pain and sorrow of their families. The Athenian traditions even provided for remembrance of those we would call “unknown soldiers” and those “missing in action.” For it was said that funeral processions would include “an empty bier decked for the missing.”
Honor and respect were seen as obligations and duties of those in a democratic society living under the rule of law and aiming for a higher civic purpose. Civic duty calls for time to be spent in remembering and recognition be given for those who have sacrificed. In our modern era, it should do us well to think about the sacrifices of our service members and their families as we go about our daily lives.