Though I consider myself rather patriotic—especially to the West of Socrates and Augustine and to the America of Washington and Jefferson—I have often found public liturgies, such as Memorial Day, distasteful. There’s too much contrivance in them, and they always feel too “new and improved” and yet sterile even in their flashiness.
At an aesthetic level, who wouldn’t choose to wear black and pour a bottle of tequila on a grave on All Soul’s Day under a grim November sky rather than be mesmerized by the gaudy reds and blues displayed around blossoming spring flowers and under a glittering May sun?
Mea culpa, but death in this world is not a pretty thing, though many die well. Death should be somber, contemplative, and prayerful, not jingoistically and superficially triumphant. Our victory in death comes from He who died on a Hill of Skulls, not from the soldier of a nation-state.
Yes, we should honor the sacrifices made by many soldiers—from the Gates of Fire to the Alamo to the beaches of Normandy. Yet, when it comes to death and the last, most essential things, it’s better to be hopeful rather than obnoxious.
Whatever distaste I might have regarding the banging of the drums of war and the flash of bright, unfurled rags, Memorial Day obviously has me thinking about death and memory and personality and goodness and truth and beauty. Despite my reluctances expressed in the first several paragraphs, Memorial Day does mean more to me than merely giving up a day to receive mail from the U.S. Postal Service.
My family and I live across the street from a rather glorious nineteenth-century cemetery. The car traffic over the narrow asphalted paths has already started, and the flags of the United States, Michigan, and the four branches of the armed services fly proudly and ubiquitously.
I assume this must be a bit like what it felt like to live under the Delian League.
So what are my thoughts on this Memorial Day weekend, aside from an unease and a rejection of what has become essentially a celebration of American imperialism? Well, I can think of one soldier in particular who served his country for four years during the Second World War but who better served his civilization and all of western civilization for the last forty-eight years of his life.
A Reluctant Soldier but a Proud Citizen
Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994) died twenty years ago last month. He died at the age of 75. The best description of his death is to be found in Jim Person’s excellent biography, Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999). Person describes in intimate detail the peace that overcame Kirk and his household at the time of his death.
Kirk died well.
For all intents and purposes, Kirk’s real career as one of the great men of letters of the last century began in 1946 as he was discharged from the U.S. Army (a full year later than most) and accepted a professorship in the Basic College at Michigan State. That professorship never could have lasted given Kirk’s integrity and the falling of standards at the state university under its simple-minded president, John Hannah.
Established at a college with a secure academic position, though, gave Kirk the impetus he needed to purpose his higher graduate degree and, through his writing, become a leading citizen not of the American republic (he’d already proved that between 1942 and 1946) but of the transcendent cosmopolis, the Republic of Letters.
Even for those of us who study conservatism, we often downplay the importance of World War II to the birth of the movement. This is not necessarily intentional, but we often say two things that delimit our thinking about the subject.
First, we always talk about the “post-war conservative movement,” thus mentally and rhetorically placing it as a development AFTER the war.
Second, we often talk about how no pre-war conservative movement existed. This latter idea is unfortunate and, more importantly, utterly false. Thinkers and writers such as Willa Cather, Albert Jay Nock, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and others had done much to continue and to advance conservatism in every facet of life. Unlike many of today’s conservatives, however, they privileged almost all spheres of life above the political, thus confusing our very political age.
As Kirk would proclaim in his best and most poetic fashion in his 1954, a conservative sense and way of understanding of the world runs all the way back to antiquity. “Aristotle was a conservative, and so was Cicero, and there have been intelligent conservatives in every age,” he wrote [Prospects for Conservatives (1954; Imaginative Conservative Books, 2013), pg. 20].
Kirk’s own published and unpublished writings demonstrate how deeply the war affected him. He never believed in conscription, and he resented every moment the army FORCED him to work for them. Not only did he reject conscription on principle, and he did so to the last day of his life, he also rejected the very idea that such service served any real purpose except to dehumanize men and destroy a civilization. Conscription, he argued,
is one of the worst because it is a fleeting and insufficient remedy; it is one of the worst because it is a negation of the principles of liberty and hope which the nation has been trumpeting. If modern society can provide no better way of existence than crowding young people together like so many ants and keeping them in a state of servitude in return for sustenance, there is little reason for modern society to continue [RAK, “Conscription Ad Infinitum,” South Atlantic Quarterly (1946): 318.
To Kirk, the generals not only betrayed gross incompetence, the average American soldier became nothing more than a savage and a beast during the war. In his hatred of all things related to Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a slightly more moral but less intelligent Hitler to Kirk’s eyes—revealed his true nefarious purposes with 1) the internment of Japanese Americans; and 2) the development of the atomic bombs (deployed under Truman, of course). Each of these things displayed the real horrors of the modern state, whether that state be “free” or totalitarian.
…confidence of Americans in the God Progress. None of them—not Joseph Smith, not William James, not John Dewey—know what this progress is toward, not even what direction it is to take. Thus far, apparently, it has been progress toward annihilation, an end to be accomplished, perhaps, by the improved atomic bomb? We have dealt more death and destruction in the space of ten years than the men of the Middle Ages, with their Devil, were able to accomplish in a thousand [Russell Kirk, private diary, November 1945]
If we consider the conservative movement from Kirk onwards as a form of a celebration of American nationalism, we have entirely missed its point. Thus, most modern American conservatives—especially those who have commodified the movement—have inverted the original intent not only of conservatism but of the best of the western project from Socrates through Burke.
Again, it is worth restating, Kirk had done his duty for the United States, but he considered his real citizenship in something that transcended time and place, though sojourning through both.
Citizenship and Hope
Please don’t mistake my intentions in writing this post. I very much believe the founding of the United States and the movement toward and claiming of independence, 1761-1791, as one of the single most important and best moments in world history.
We should celebrate George Washington as the best of the best. We should do the same for John Dickinson and others.
Washington, it must be remembered, took a long-term and very broad view when it came to understanding one’s Americanness.
In these honorable qualifications I behold the surest pledges that as on one side no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests, so, on another, that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
In no way could one read Washington’s meaning as “my country, right or wrong.” It is very much “my country, when my country behaves according to eternal and natural laws and mores and norms.” Nothing, I think, better illustrates the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, between real humanism and devastating jingoism.
If Memorial Day means remembering and honoring George Washington, I’m in. If it means remembering and honoring Paul Tibbets, watch me run away. If it means remembering and honoring Sitting Bull, I’m in. If it means remembering and honoring George Armstrong Custer, let me guffaw.
We should honor the dead. That is, we should honor the dead who died honorably. If they died to defend family, hearth, dignity, a well-ordered society, and free will, they died well. If they died in the service of power, let us remember them with charity but not affection.
[Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this piece to my father-in-law, Kenneth McDonald, who served his country because “it was the right thing to do.” I am extremely proud of him. Additionally, much of this post was shaped by the lyrics of “Territories,” written by Neil Peart (1985)] *Photo of Russell Kirk courtesy of Mrs. Annette Kirk.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.