William Forstchen: There's no excuse for closing military memorials
He says such places are special, particularly for those who fought for the U.S.
Forstchen: President should use active military police to guard these monuments
Editor’s Note: William R. Forstchen is professor of history and faculty fellow at Montreat College. He is the author of more than 40 books, including his latest novel, “One Second After,” and nine novels about American military history co-authored with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a bespectacled college professor turned soldier in the defense of the Union, often returned to Gettysburg, that legendary battlefield where on a grim and terrible July day in 1863, Chamberlain and his regiment, the 20th Maine, held the extreme left flank of the Union army against an attack by near overwhelming odds, launched by equally gallant troops from Alabama.
Chamberlain’s regiment held the line. As the years passed, the Medal of Honor recipient would go back to Gettysburg with comrades to contemplate and to pray. He came to call that hallowed ground the “Vision Place of Souls.” He wrote that where great deeds were accomplished, a “spirit” of greatness lingered.
What would he and his comrades, and those who faced them beneath that hot July sun say to us today? For our “Vision Place of Souls,” are now off limits, forbidden lands, “Verboten” to all. What would they say to us?
In what is described as a government shutdown, the Beltway around Washington is still jammed with the commuters to federal offices, White House and congressional staffers continue to work, but by a highly selective process, our national memorials to the living and fallen who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are closed.
Few veterans have the means to travel to remote islands of the Pacific, the beaches of Normandy, the woods of the Hurtgen and Bastogne to visit but one more time their “Vision Place,” where with family and comrades they can say, “Here I fought,” or say, “Here is where my friend Charlie – remember my telling you about him? – here is where he died.” For them, the monuments have become their ‘Vision Place,” their gathering place, the place of remembrance, of pride, and of tears.
To selectively close off such places is nothing less than vindictive, a national disgrace that We the People have allowed to continue for more than a week after its implementation.
But far more egregious has been the closing of our military cemeteries overseas. England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, in remembrance of the supreme sacrifice made by so many Americans, deeded to us in perpetuity the land where tens of thousands now rest beneath crosses and stars of David, row upon row. Those few acres are, forever, the soil, the very soul of America.
It is fashionable for some to view current European politics and policies with disdain. But when it comes to the sacrifice in blood we gave for their freedom, believe me, there is still utmost respect on their part. When I travel there with veterans, they are greeted with respect, warmth, handshakes, embraces and tears. While we appear to have forgotten, they have not.
I have traveled twice to Omaha Beach with a veteran of that assault. Most of you who read this have seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” the opening scene when Ryan, now an old man, walks into the cemetery and stops at the grave of his comrade and all but collapses. I have been there, I have seen that for real. I personally call the pathway from the parking lot, to where the walkway turns and suddenly you behold the thousands upon thousands of graves, the “place of tears.”
I call it that for the reaction of nearly all is the same. A slowing of pace as they turn the corner of the pathway and behold the cemetery for the first time. Nearly all stop for a moment, and so many (myself included) begin to weep. I will never forget my elderly friend, after checking into a small office to find the resting place of a friend amid all those thousands of graves, stoically pressed on until he found the grave he was looking for, and then the tears flowed.
Now that place is off-limits to veterans, to families looking for the resting place of a loved one, for so many of us who just felt a heart driven need to come and offer our respect and thanks, we are barricaded off, denied, almost as if it is still enemy-occupied territory. A few acres of hallowed ground of American, that our own government now forbids us to visit.
This is no longer a fight about a budget, about “Obamacare,” about the intransigence of a few in Congress, and I state that regardless of whom you might blame. This is about arrogance, about heartless disregard. It is about a shameful display of self-aggrandizing power that shouts “I forbid,” and We the People, descendants of our Revolutionary forefathers are expected to obey with heads bowed and turn away in obedience.
The Constitution of the United States empowers the president to serve as commander-in-chief of our armed services. Mr. President, you have the power to take down the barricades to our “Vision Place of Souls.”
I challenge you, Mr. President, that there is a simple alternative to what is now transpiring. Detail but a few hundred military police to stand guard instead. There is not a man or woman in uniform who would not volunteer for such service, for the honor to stand watch over their comrades.
Mr. President, tear down the barricades of dishonor. Let serving members of our military stand watch instead. Denying We the People our “Vision Place of Souls” is an act of dishonor that will not be forgotten … or forgiven.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Forstchen.