In my mind’s eye I see Richard Rowland Kirkland, whose memorial, pictured above, stands in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, wondering whether the bullet which would kill him would come from his own side or from the enemy. They say that he tended, alone, to thousands of wounded soldiers, both friend and foe. There was a fear that if more soldiers helped their move would be mistaken as an attack. It’s very fitting that this memorial stands close by a battlefield which became a graveyard. It reminds us that he put his humanitarianism before politics, and considered it worth risking his life to do so.
This war had intrigued me since I was a child. Civil wars are said to be the worst kind. Of course, they must be – brother against brother, destroying ones own backyard, and this cemetery really brought that home to me when I visited a couple of years ago. It was in the week before Memorial Day weekend, and I strolled around the site for a long time, reading about what happened there, shocked to realize that in some ways it wasn’t that long ago, saddened by the row upon row of simple headstones, which seem to stretch interminably around the hillside, and feeling a “presence” on the Sunken Road, despite the warmth of the day.
We’d chosen to travel on Memorial Day itself because we were going against the traffic in the early morning. away from Virginia and DC, and so expected it to be light and the driving easy. As we left we skirted the cemetery and I was incredibly moved to see that every one of those graves had sprouted a Stars and Stripes in the two days since we had visited. It’s a sight you don’t dismiss easily – that people had spent so much time to honor the fallen despite how long ago it was (almost all of the graves there are from the Civil War), and despite that 85% of those graves are unmarked, thousands of unknown soldiers.
A few days before visiting Fredericksburg I’d paid my first visit to Washington DC, and fallen firmly in love with the city. It was very much a flying visit, I’m sad to say (Going back is high on my list), but visiting the National Mall was an experience all the more touching for seeing the number of veterans who were clearly taking in the sight before the busy weekend, some in wheelchairs, and some very, very elderly. I imagined them all as young bucks, handsome and dashing and fighting for freedom. Now they were here to pay respects to their friends who had died so long ago. I’m not so much pro-peace that I consider that there is nothing worth fighting for. WW2 is an example, and this is the Memorial to the fallen in that war. It’s fitting and peaceful its classical lines and beauty.
It’s not especially fashionable, outside of right-wing circles, to praise wars or soldiers, but I was born a year after WW2, and was brought up to understand the debt I had to my father’s generation. Last night I watched “Empire of the Sun” on tv. I don’t have many doubts about how awful my life could have been without the sacrifice of complete strangers, including those from half way around the world. I seem to be a liberal (I hate to stick labels on people, but every time I have a political thought it seems to be on the side of compassion rather than the I’m Alright, Jack lot), but I hold that sometimes war is necessary. Even when you read the largely pacifist writings of HH The Dalai Lama he confirms that sometimes it is necessary to fight for something.
I’m endlessly grateful to those who died, and those whose lives were forever altered by WW2, for allowing me the freedoms I’ve enjoyed, and we should also be grateful to those who suffered the same fates in wars we may consider not so just. Their motives are the same, and we should respect that – as Richard Rowland Kirkland did.