“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” said the Roman poet Horace. In the Latin original, the phrase went, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” This Horatian phrase was on the lips of many young European men as they went off to fight at the beginning the First World War, a war that began 100 years ago this July. As we are coming to remember this year in our centennial observances, the realities of trench warfare turned out to be quite different from the sweet and decorous battles many had imagined. The great English poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen, took Horace’s phrase and made it the ironic title of his anti-war poem, “Dulce et decorum est.” Owen’s poem details the horrors of trench warfare and the indignities to which its soldiers are exposed. It memorably ends with these lines, addressed to someone who seemingly still thinks that 20th century war fits the ancient models:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
In a century of trench warfare, nuclear weapons, napalm, and roadside bombs it may no longer seem “sweet and fitting” to die for one’s country, but still it is often necessary to do so, and as a nation we pause each year to honor that sacrifice. Memorial Day, which we observe today, had its origins during the American Civil War, the first “modern” war, which was also notable for its horrific battlefield conditions. Decoration Day, as the holiday was first known, began when women in the South and North decorated the graves of soldiers on the last weekend in May as a time of remembrance. Over the years, Decoration Day turned into Memorial Day and became a national holiday. It is the day on which we rightly remember all those who have given their lives in the service of their country. It is a holiday that unites all of us—strong believers in national defense, staunch critics of military engagement—in remembering and honoring those who have died while fighting on our behalf.
As we gather on Memorial Day weekend 2014, the news is sadly filled with stories of the mistreatment of many of our veterans in the healthcare system run by the Veterans’ Administration. According to a front page story in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times,
The Phoenix VA Health Care System is under a federal Justice Department investigation for reports that it maintained a secret waiting list to conceal the extent of its patient delays … But there are now clear signs that veterans’ health centers across the U.S. are juggling appointments and sometimes manipulating wait lists to disguise long delays for primary and follow-up appointments, according to federal reports, congressional investigators and interviews with VA employees and patients.
The growing evidence suggests a VA system with overworked physicians, high turnover and schedulers who are often hiding the extent to which patients are forced to wait for medical care. (“Portrait of a Troubled VA Taking Shape,” Los Angeles Times, 5/18/14)
Now I want to be clear about a couple of things before I proceed. One of them is that Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day are two distinct holidays with two very different agendas. It is understandable that we often mix them up, but when we do so we fail fully to honor the dead and to care for the living. As I said in this pulpit last year, “Let us not confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. “ I still hold to that distinction. And the second thing is this: I have no interest in piling on in criticism of the VA that is often demagogic and self-serving. If I hear one more politician describe himself as “mad as hell” about these reports I will scream. This is not about resignations. This is about a change in all our hearts. Nevertheless: there comes a time when we cannot easily separate the concerns of the dead from those of the living. There comes a time when we can no longer just thank heroic men and women for their service rhetorically. There comes a time when the best way to honor and remember the dead is not to lay a wreath at their tomb but to care for the living. That time is clearly now. In Luke’s Gospel’s account of the resurrection, the young men at Jesus’ tomb ask the women who come there to see him, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen“ (Luke 24:5b). As Jesus himself says also in that Gospel, our God “is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38).
The allegations against some of the VA hospitals, if true, are horrifying. One complaint alleges that two preventable deaths occurred in Phoenix because of “long wait times and poor patient care.” And the Times story goes on to report how
agency staffers were “gaming the system” by making it appear that appointments set for weeks or months in the future were “desired dates” requested by veterans. In fact, they said, veterans grudgingly accepted future appointments because they felt they had no other choice.
Now those of us who live in a city whose principal business is government know something about the self-protective nature of bureaucracies. If you ever watched David Simon’s HBO series, The Wire, you’ll remember how each season centered on a way in which a system (police, schools, city government, even the press) threw its own members under the bus in order to perpetuate the system’s elite. This is natural, organizational human behavior. It explains the bad faith of political, governmental, educational, and even religious systems. So while I am disappointed in the allegations about the VA health system, I am not really surprised.
But what does shock me is our continued national willingness to live with these conditions. We say we honor the war dead, and we say we care for the survivors. But our national behavior tells another story. Over the past several years we have heard increasing accounts of veterans living below the poverty line in rural parts of the U.S. and many even homeless in our cities. We continue to learn of the lasting effects of Post-Traumatic Stress even as those who suffer from it struggle to get treatment and have their discharges given before PTS was recognized deemed “honorable.” As the rest of us become increasingly socially distanced from those who serve in the military, the problems faced by soldiers and veterans seem to fall out of our range of shared concern. How many of us actually know people serving right now in Afghanistan? How many of us actually know Iraq war veterans? There are some, I’m sure, but the ratio is much different from the days of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
So it’s hard for me to pile on to the VA or its leadership because the primary problem is really my own lack of engagement. And while that may be excusable for me as a citizen, it is not excusable for me as a Christian. Because Jesus taught and lived in a way that showed that the needs and pains and struggles of everyone—even and especially those of the most marginalized and socially distant from me—are my concerns. In today’s Gospel, the risen Jesus expresses his own care for the needs and pains of all with these words of reassurance to his companions:
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:18–21)
Just as Jesus does not leave us orphaned, so we cannot leave our veterans to make their way on their own. Washington National Cathedral honors those who served and those who died not only by remembering and thanking them with words and rituals. We remember and thank them through action by standing with and for them in their quest for fair and equitable treatment. The struggle is not only to reform the bureaucracy. The struggle is also to change our hearts. If we say that we care, then we must act like we care. As the faith community we must take up the cause for public programs that will ensure veterans and their families the best in social, medical, educational, psychological, and employment policies. This cathedral’s veterans’ initiative must go beyond saluting the fallen and those who served to include advocacy for the living as well as the dead.
We do not confuse Memorial Day with Veterans’ Day, but sometimes the best way for us to honor the dead is to care for the living. If we really value the sacrifice of those who died in the service of our country, we will do all we can to make sure that their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are adequately cared for and empowered to live full and fulfilling lives. It is not enough to say, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” and leave it at that. Jesus will not leave us comfortless. We cannot leave them comfortless either. They gave everything. We owe them, their comrades and survivors, no less. Amen.