May 28th, 2012
06:58 PM ET

Letters to the President #1225: 'The best memorial'

Reporter's Note: President Obama marked Memorial Day, as presidents do, by placing a wreath in Arlington Cemetery. I am marking it by writing this letter.

Dear Mr. President,

Every year on Memorial Day, I think about Carl Sandburg’s poem, Grass.

“Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass; I cover all…”

It goes on, of course, and you can read a whole copy online, although I have to prepare myself for that task. Reading those words always brings tears to my eyes.

I have seen some of the most beautiful, thoughtful, and artfully crafted war memorials in the country; countless stone renderings of brave soldiers to remind all who pass of their sacrifices over generations. Many are magnificent, some are plain, all are sobering.

And yet, nothing hits my heart harder than the thought of the battlefields...sometimes filled with grass, sometimes not…left behind when the wars are done. Whether in Vietnam, Korea, Europe, the South Pacific, or the Middle East; on our own soil or some other, forgotten outpost; these are the memorials that touch me the deepest; the empty places where fighting once raged.

President Lincoln paid homage to the idea of the land itself being a tribute when he dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg. He said, while it was fitting that the cemetery should be honored, “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.”

That’s how I have always felt about such places. Any memorials we hover around on this day are good to be sure, but they are poor shadows of the land itself on which our fellow Americans fought and died for principles that we, as a nation, asked them to defend.

So each Memorial Day, I read Grass and I remember. I don’t think so much about the great monuments that tell us our countrymen died in some given place, but rather about the forgotten corners; the little places where some small group fought and fell with no fanfare, where the only monument is a patch of grass, or a stretch of dirt, or a stand of scrubby trees, and where the wildflowers are the only wreath in tribute to their brave sacrifice.

To those forgotten, quiet, still places, on this day I send my thoughts, gratitude, and prayers.

Regards, Tom

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