By John Kass
May 30, 2022
We had some fine traditions in America, though many have been pushed aside because they get in the way of modern politics.
And when it comes to patriotism on the days when we mourn our war dead, you can feel the media groaning. Patriots and patriarchs aren’t much appreciated these days. They’re now considered just too toxic, too masculine and they’re such a bother.
America once prized merit and competition. Now, though, we prize politics and our cultural institutions strive to make Beta males. There are unintended costs to all of this, including all those young men lost, boys adrift without fathers to guide them, lonely confused boys who rage in the anonymous shadows of social media. Add unfettered access to violent violent video games, unfettered access to internet porn, raised by mothers who resent the fathers who walked away, shaped by anger and the social isolation that comes from closing schools for the past few years.
Throw in the absence of a spiritual life and the absence of a common morality. Add guns. This stew of rage boils over into murder sprees, in rural areas, in urban centers.
We ignore what we feel in our bones to be wrong. We’d rather play our politics instead.
Ultimately the day comes—and it always comes—when some other powerful nation that isn’t obsessed with creating Beta males shows up with its armies. They come to take all that you have and all that you’d ever dreamed of having. They come to take your food, your life, the lives of your children. Your spine. Your hope. Your identity. Everything.
And then you don’t have a country. The landless descend into wandering barbarism. They become as beasts of no nation, because their nation is gone.
Don’t think it can’t happen. It happens. It has happened in many other ages. It happened to Thebes. That nation had destroyed the unstoppable superpower and military might of Sparta, but soon Thebes was itself destroyed, all the way down to the scattered, nameless stones, the people dead or sold off in the slave markets. And who and what they were was forgotten. All that was left were scratches on stones bleaching like bones in the sun.
History tells us these stories again and again, if we’d listen. History warns of what happens to nations that weaken themselves and abandon their own borders, prizing sensitivity and men without chests above virtue.
A culture becoming fragile is awash with tears, but it becomes dry, like pottery. It cracks. And as the ages forget the names, history smirks.
When the people are threatened, with the people desperate and frightened, it is then that soldiers are appreciated, welcomed and needed. The armed forces, forming that thin line between civilization and chaos are honored for a time. Though eventually, if they’re successful in defense, they are inevitably forgotten, again. All soldiers throughout history have understood this dynamic, especially in free, prosperous nations like ours.
Our war dead didn’t risk or lose their lives to be praised and petted with flowery words. They knew they were led to slaughter by fine words from the double-tongues about great honor and great sacrifice. But they also knew this:
They had a job to do, protecting our liberty and our nation with their bodies and blood.
I suppose they hoped, as Americans, that we would live up to our half of the bargain and not dishonor the freedom they’d given to us, that was bought with their lives.
Traditions are an important means for a people trying to stave off cultural betrayal. This is why traditions are often targeted by agents of change. The old traditions remind us who we are, what we were, reminding us of our ideal selves, of virtue lost to time and what we call progress.
But today is Memorial Day, 2022, when we mourn the fallen of the United States Armed Forces who died for our liberty.
And because it is Memorial Day, not burger and beer day, not sports day, not play video games day, not chips and dip day, there is one tradition I hope we try our best to keep.
It involves us taking time out to think hard and long about a soldier’s poem and the poppies, row on row.
“In Flanders Fields” is that soldier’s poem, written in World War I by Col. John McCrae, a man who’d seen the devastation of war, and hopelessness. Yet with clear eyes and a clean heart he wrote of poppy blossoms as rebirth of hope, those bright orange/red papery thin blossoms, as delicate as dreams, waving in the breeze over the freshly dug graves of the dead.
The scene was Ypres, Belgium at a farm converted to a military hospital, where McCrae was an Army doctor, doctor, dealing with pain and death and disease. Flanders Fields is particularly tragic. The political leadership had led their citizens into hell, and still the citizen soldiers marched toward death and the trenches and the barbed wire, and the gas.
My mother, 92 years old and born of the United Kingdom, hasn’t forgotten. She was born in Guelph, Ontario, the town where Col. McCrae is from. She knew his family. They all knew of the McCraes, but they did not treat them as celebrities. Instead, they respected them.
My mom would put a book of his poetry on the breakfast table when my sons were little boys, so that we’d remember as we taught the boys. And that is how traditions are maintained.
And my friend Bill Gritsonis, a former soldier of the U.S. Army and member of the American Legion Hellenic Post 343 hasn’t forgotten. The entire American Legion hasn’t forgotten. The legion remembers the poem and the poppy, and members hand out poppies to help commemorate Memorial Day.
“We’d hand out the poppies around City Hall,” he said. “Some of the veterans who survived are so very old. They’re still holding on. We have to do this for them, for us, for our kids, for our country. We just can’t forget.”
On this Memorial Day, when too many of us are thinking of grilling meat and drinking beer and staring at ballgames with sports announcer talking of the loss of a game as if it is death. American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign Wars and many other groups will attend and participate in ceremonies of somber remembrance and mourning.
Some will be at parades in small towns. Or in quiet gatherings in cemeteries. They’ll bow their heads as ae bugler plays “Taps” in a town square, or as the notes from the horns echo on the gravestones in great national cemeteries.
American Legion Hellenic Post 343 plans on being at Elmwood Cemetery, in River Grove, Il., as they have for years, since the 2011 dedication of the Hellenic American Veterans Memoria that honors Greeks who served.
“This began way before my time, with others, the group as a whole, Hellenic Post 343 bought the land at Elmwood Cemetery, raised the funds,” Gritsonis said. “The Scouts remember. Our former commander, Anastasios “Steve” Betzelos, he’s 98 and a half. He’s going to try to make it.”
Gritsonis isn’t looking for a mention. He’s not like that. Once a top soldier, he doesn’t seek glory in the words of others. He’d rather that I write around his name. But he and other former U.S. Armed Service Personnel and those on active duty will remember.
Why? Once you learn about Flanders Fields, once you read the poem, it sears. It is difficult to forget.
And perhaps because we all come from someplace else. We’re Americans. And whatever our ethnicity or creed, we’re bound together by the ideas that maintain our liberty. They’re written in the Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights added to the Constitution by wise and great men, that form a nation that is still the last, best hope of mankind on earth.
Some old soldiers will be asked about Col. McCrae’s poem and the poppies on the graves. I hope they’re asked about it. You might want to print this poem out, take it with you to the cemetery, or a parade, or a lonely grave.
You might leave a copy of the poem on a picnic table, as others stuff their faces and guzzle beers without a thought of the Americans who gave everything for them. I don’t mean to shake it at them as if it’s some kind of dare. We’ve had too much of that on all sides.
Politicians and their angry mouthpieces are waging wars of words right now over what to do in the aftermath of mass shootings, like the one in Texas. The way they talk, they’re all about winning some kind of advantage, hoping to crush their political opponents. It’s as if their words were political tomahawks fashioned from the bones of the dead children from that school in Uvalde. The dead children become the pointed tips of their rhetorical spears.
And others wage wars of words over escalating the war in Ukraine, the same voices that frightened the nation about those weapons of mass destruction that couldn’t be found in Iraq, the same voices that argued for that war. The same voices that assured us that Western-style democracy could be imposed on people with no idea or appreciation for our democratic traditions. These are same voices that told us not to worry about the rise of the American Surveillance State.
And all these barking dogs on all sides sound as if they have a deep faith, not in God, but in themselves, and their own special talents. The anonymous life on social media has left them unbound. They rage and become their own gods, and for as long as they keep barking, I suppose they feel they’ll never be held accountable. So the barking continues.
When “In Flanders Fields” was first published anonymously, in the English magazine “Punch” on Dec. 15, 1915, it seemed as there was a common purpose to our history. And then as now, the young wanted so desperately to live.
It became an anthem. Here is John McCrea’s poem:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved,
And now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
There have been other poems. But this, to me, to many of us, on this Memorial Day 2022, when we mourn our war dead, is one of a kind.
‘Lest we forget.
(Copyright 2022 John Kass)