When Soldiers Fall
How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan
Oxford University Press, New York, 2014, 320 pages
The Politics of Mourning
Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016, 416 pages
Book Review published on: July 7, 2017
Throughout American history a constant and clear truism remains: by joining the military, there is a tangible possibility of being sent into harm’s way. Such is the nature of war and warfare. Combat skills are consistently trained with the expectation of battle; death for some is the ultimate sacrifice paid. Steven Casey’s When Soldiers Fall and Micki McElya’s The Politics of Mourning focus on the battles after death and pick up where other books may end. The former book is destined for your personal library, the latter for the burn bin.
When a member of the military dies in a combat zone, who holds the primacy of the narrative of that event? To put it another way: who has the right to tell the story of a soldier’s death? Is it the family, the government, the military, or the press? This is the central question addressed in When Soldiers Fall. History should accurately represent the past, resonate with the present, and provide a guide to the future. Casey does exceptionally well in this regard. His book traces the story of casualty accounting, notification, and competing narratives among those involved from World War I through the waning years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. When Soldiers Fall provides enough apropos history to set the tone but not so much to weigh down the reader into pettifogging details. More importantly, it connects with modern readers, both those associated with the military and those who are not. One cannot help but think of current day debates over Syria, North Korea, or Ukraine when presented with Casey’s historical analysis.
Casey’s book offers balanced criticism and multiple viewpoints from an individual mother’s grief (e.g., Gold Star mothers) to the political calculus of presidents (e.g., Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt) and their opposition in Congress. Throw in the concerns of the Pentagon brass, the media, and a public’s right to know, and you have a complex mix of emotions and competing agendas. One example from When Soldiers Fall is representative of this brew: the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The surprise attack by the Japanese ushered America’s entrance into World War II as thousands of military members were killed or injured. Who had a right to know this and discuss it? Obviously, the families of those casualties had a right to know, but when? What did the military or the government owe the family in terms of information? Would family members be allowed to tell others? Did the military fail to adequately protect the service members? Did Roosevelt underestimate the threat and was Congress justified in politically attacking him for failing to prevent it? What about the press and the public’s right to know? The Navy “immediately stopped all radio-telephone transmissions from Hawaii, even cutting off a UP news alert halfway through, while the army censored the mail.” The argument for doing so was to prevent the Japanese from learning how successful their attack was. Rumors ran rampant among citizens and the press, and it was not until 23 February 1942 that Roosevelt gave the “hard facts.” Would telling the truth over casualties suppress recruitment efforts of young men now badly needed to fight? For many months, Roosevelt’s administration pushed for casualty lists to be published only in the local newspapers where the next of kin lived.
As exampled above, Casey’s book exposed the mosaic of competing interests and offers historical echoes to many conversations we are having over todays realized—and tomorrow’s perceived—conflicts. Standing in stark contrast to When Soldiers Fall is The Politics of Mourning, which, rather than focusing on casualty reporting, instead traces the history of America’s most visual symbol of military loss: Arlington National Cemetery.
The book begins by pondering a sign posted at the cemetery that instructs on proper conduct while on the site. It “attempts to mediate the tensions among the cemetery’s roles as a site for individual grief, collective mourning, and tourism, while serving as a tacit recognition of their fundamental inseparability.” This would have been an excellent foundation for a solid book, but instead the author launches into a racial, gender, and sexual orientation broadside against the park specifically, and America in general.
One-third of the book is spent on Arlington’s slave-owning past. The cemetery is located in Virginia, a then slave-owning state during America’s younger years, and it was owned by Gen. Robert E. Lee. True, this is historical fact, but McElya treats it as indictment. She faults the National Park Service of, among many crimes, papering over the horrors of slavery. The accusations flow through the entire book. Arlington is a “scene” for “triumphant white supremacy,” asserting “shared white value and racially exclusive nationalism” in its treatment of the Civil War. She laments that the average fallen service member buried is “presumed to be heterosexual.” She assigns ulterior motives to official statements on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the “American Unknown was selected from France on October 21, 1921,” and the presumption was the body was “not only male but white and Protestant,” conveniently leaving out that the overwhelming majority of American troops fighting in France during World War I were indeed male, white, and Protestant. And finally, leaving no multicultural stone unturned, Arlington National Cemetery has been “Islamophobic” and anti-Wiccan, only recently freed from the “Judeo-Christian assumptions of most of its history.”
This is a hate America first book. It suffers from the sin of presentism: judging the past by the standards of the present. The take away is that any surviving family member who dared have their (presumably white) fallen loved one laid to rest at Arlington is a closet racist, sexist, homophobic, Muslim hater. If you are looking for a book on the complex politics of casualties, stick with When Soldiers Fall.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Christopher Ellis, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas