Whose Boots on the Ground

We invest a great deal of collective energy in commemorating our war dead. But do we remember them?

Kiley Bense | Longreads | November 2019 | 14 minutes (3,580 words)

 

What I notice are the boots: two pairs in worn black leather, lined up beneath a bookcase, their heels pressed against the turquoise-painted baseboard. They look as if their owner had stowed them there in one careless motion, after yanking them off his feet. The toes of one pair turn slightly into each other, just kissing, and the others face off-kilter toward the corner of the room.

This room is a shrine made by freezing the contents of a life in time. It belonged to a French soldier, Hubert Rochereau, who was killed during World War I at the age of 22. His parents sealed off his bedroom intact, and when they sold the house the deed included a stipulation that the new owners leave the room untouched for 500 years.

The wallpaper in the room is a pale pink-and-white stripe, the bedspread a fading snowflake-patterned lace. The books have cloth covers and paper labels taped over their spines. There are framed photographs on the shelf, and on the desk sit an iron-wrought key and a tarnished pipe. A tattered soldier’s coat hangs beside the desk, all its brass buttons dulled with age, the blue fabric fraying.

I got stuck on those boots and on this room vibrating with the memory of a man gone more than a century, because here was a memorial for a soldier that didn’t erase him as an individual: a young man with a serious gaze and dark hair.

When we remember our war dead, we often do so en masse. We visit fields where rows of white headstones radiate outward in straight lines, touching the horizon. We pin red poppies to our lapels and stick yellow ribbons to our bumpers, hoping to express our collective grief. We hold a minute of silence, or two, marking thousands of vanished souls with an absence of sound. We leave a wreath at the base of a monument inscribed with so many names that it would be impossible to linger on any one of them, let alone understand and feel the pain that each of their deaths meant to those they left behind.

Last month, at a rally in Minnesota, as he talked about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Donald Trump invoked the deaths of service members and his own feelings about meeting their families as they waited to greet the coffins of their loved ones at Dover Air Force Base. He called visits there “a very tough experience.” “We meet them, and we talked to them, and their son or daughter is being flown in from some far away place in a coffin, and these things are just impossible. I don’t know how parents can do it, even […] I see parents make sounds, that were just 20 minutes ago absolutely fine, make sounds, scream and cry like you’ve never seen before,” he said. Trump noted how surprised he was by this display of emotion, how he hadn’t expected it because the mourners seemed “okay” before the caskets arrived. He didn’t mention any of the families or soldiers by name.

* * *

In March 1949, nearly six years to the day after he was killed in combat in Tunisia in World War II, my great-uncle Dick Halvey’s body was finally shipped back to the United States. His remains (“skeletonized,” the records say, and covered in a shroud) arrived in New York harbor with 66 other coffins, his name a typewritten pause between Grover, Willie B., and Hamilton, Billee L. From there the caskets were driven to Rosslyn, Virginia, in a mortuary car. Dick Halvey would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in section 34, lot 2162, under the Latin Cross. A few inches of column in the Philadelphia Inquirer announced that Halvey’s rites would be conducted on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, at 2 p.m. The notice mentioned that Halvey had played on his high school varsity basketball team and had worked as a manager of the shipping department at Stadham & Co., in Philadelphia.

Unlike earlier obituaries, which had only mentioned the names of Dick’s father, Brendan, and brother, Robert, this one records my grandmother’s name, too. “A sister, Patricia,” it reads. It also contains an error, one many of his obituaries reproduced: “At the time of his death he was 24.” But Dick Halvey hadn’t yet turned 24 when he was killed in Tunisia; his birthday was still four months away. He was born the week a heat wave broke at the height of summer in 1919, a third blue-eyed Halvey baby, dressed in white pinafores and smiling with full cheeks.

Saved in the scrapbook my grandmother made to preserve Dick’s memory is a map of Arlington, a cartoonish rendering of the cemetery’s expanse. The route to Dick’s grave is traced in red pencil, a winding line that ends in one hasty X.

Like many mourners before and after him, Brendan Halvey found solace in the idea that his son had died for a reason. In 1943, he wrote in a letter that he believed that Dick had “accomplished his earthly mission” and called the war “this great cause.” He was “mighty proud” of his boys.

* * *

The Gettysburg Address ends with a promise: “—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” I think that this is what scares us, the public on whose behalf American wars are fought, what moves us to build polished statues heavy with patriotic symbolism and idealistic poetry. We are terrified that all those shortened lives were brought to an end for no reason at all. We want to imagine that soldiers and sailors die in glorious charges—that they greeted death because they chose to. We picture the cavalry in a medieval tapestry: knights weighed down with bright armor, swords that glister in falling sunlight, screams and drums and flapping pennants. This impulse to romanticize has only become stronger in the wake of our 21st-century “forever” wars, where open-ended conflicts rage on for murky reasons. At least individual death can be unquestionably heroic, sacrifice without qualification. War is almost always gruesome and wasteful, ugly and unfair, but it was once slower and closer, a way of killing and dying that the world wars brought definitively and irrevocably to an end.

We are terrified that all those shortened lives were brought to an end for no reason at all.

In World War I, the rapid-fire massacre of human beings on the battlefield reached a pinnacle that history had never before seen. “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” Wilfred Owen wrote, in “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” one of the Great War’s most devastating poems. “No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.” So many of those who perish in war die because they were unlucky, because they didn’t duck at the right moment, because they stopped to tie the lace on an undone boot at the wrong time, or because they happened to be standing on a patch of dirt destined to explode. There is little agency in these deaths, only the searing injustice of the arbitrary and the utterly pointless. And the more pointless the slaughter, the more we try to cover up its cause and paper over the waste with perfect salutes and platitudes about honor. In the morning reports from Dick Halvey’s unit, the clerk records that two men suffered nervous breakdowns after experiencing an aerial bombardment for the first time. They had to be evacuated from the front, each no longer able to function because of extreme terror. The clerk signs off this entry the same way he has ended every other eventless notation: “Morale of the men is very good.”

Then there is this poem, one whose lines I often find skittering through my mind, written by Timothy Corsellis, a young pilot who had trained with the British Royal Air Force. It is about the distance between the idealism of a young airman and the reality of serving. Corsellis begins “What I Never Saw” with the war he had envisioned as a civilian, a war of dramatic violence and worthy causes. The war he encountered was nothing like these grand visions:

What I never saw
Were the weary hours of waiting while the sun rose
and set,
The everlasting eye turned upwards to the sky
Watching the weather which said,
‘Thou shalt not fly.’
We sat together as we sat at peace
Bound by no ideal of service
But by a common interest in pornography and a desire
to outdrink one another.

The poem ends in the thudding and sarcastic realization that nothing he had imagined could have prepared him for what he found in military life:

When I was a civilian I hoped high
Dreamt my future cartwheels in the sky
Almost forgot to arm myself
Against the boredom and the inefficiency
The petty injustice and the everlasting grudges
The sacrifice is greater than I ever expected.

Corsellis was killed in an accident in October 1941 when his plane stalled and crashed in Scotland. He was 21.

Across the Atlantic, as the United States galloped into the war, most civilians were insulated from confronting the bodily price victory required. When “Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna”⁠—the first photograph showing dead American soldiers in World War II⁠—was published in LIFE Magazine in September 1943⁠, the public was shocked. Not, I suspect, because they were surprised that soldiers could die in this war (plenty already had, including Dick Halvey), but because of the way the image depicted the dead: three men strewn like driftwood on a beach in New Guinea, the figure in the foreground facedown in the sand, his legs sunken into the soil, only the sodden heels of his boots visible. There is nothing sacred about this manner of dying, no decorum or sense of ceremony.

An editorial accompanied the photograph and explained why the magazine had chosen to publish it. “What shall we say of them?” it begins. “Shall we say that this is a noble sight? Shall we say that this is a fine thing, that they should give their lives for their country? Or shall we say that this is too horrible to look at? Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore? Is it to hurt people? To be morbid? Those are not the reasons.” According to the editors, the justification for publication is for the American people to “come directly and without words into the presence of their own dead.” Words are not enough to convey the truth of what is happening, the editors argued: “This is the reality that lies behind the names that come to rest at last on monuments in the leafy squares of busy American towns.”

It took the magazine just under a year to convince government censors to allow the publication of the photograph. Ultimately, pictures like this one and news reels that showed the magnitude and the disgrace of the war, as well as its real and terrible effects on American bodies, helped to turn morale around on the home front. Many Americans hadn’t wanted to get involved in World War II; before Pearl Harbor, they’d wanted to let Europe and Asia burn alone. By the fall of 1943, the war seemed without end and a triumph for the Allies elusive and far-off. Seeing these images of American soldiers filled civilians with a fervor that fueled massive war effort at home, from the factory workers building bombs and the boy scouts selling war bonds to the neighbors tending victory gardens and the children collecting scrap metal.

* * *

The platform at the Arlington Cemetery Metro station is crowded. It’s 2013, deep into summer, and people are wearing t-shirts emblazoned with eagles’ heads and “Don’t Tread on Me,” flag-printed visors, and plastic flip-flops. They are holding maps and talking loudly. At the information desk within the cemetery’s grounds, a woman says that it’ll be eight dollars to take a tram to section 34, and would I like an audio guide? What I want is to know when Arlington became a tourist attraction and stopped being only a field of grief, though maybe it was always both.

I think about a three-star Yelp review I came across claiming Arlington was worth a visit only if you take the official tour; the writer wasn’t planning to come back a second time, in any case. I think about the emails that arrive in my inbox every May with cheerful subject lines like “Memorial Day sales to shop right now! The biggest and best deals!” I think about the teacher at my high school who taped a sign with an updated count of the death toll in Iraq to his classroom door, and about how no one ever seemed to stop to read it.


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Walking to section 34 doesn’t take long: just take Eisenhower Drive to Bradley and turn at Pershing. It’s July in Virginia but mercifully it doesn’t feel like it. Clouds linger, and the grass hums with the sound of thousands of mosquitos’ wings, batting against the weight of the air. When I get to the crest of the hill where the World War II service members lie, I pull out the scrap of paper on which I scribbled the number of the grave: 2162.

Arlington is supposed to be a sanctuary, and out here, where the wind is hushed and the tourists don’t often go, it does feel sacred. What’s not so hallowed are the infinite numbers and their respective stones.

Dick’s headstone is midway up the hill, under the shade of a tree in bloom. The tree’s roots have erupted around the stone next to his so that a whole corner of it is submerged under soil and knotted bark. How many years has it been since someone else stood here? How many since anyone came here for him? Why didn’t I remember to bring flowers? Should I snap a branch from the tree and lay it where his head might be?

What I want is to know when Arlington became a tourist attraction and stopped being only a field of grief, though maybe it was always both.

I consider my reasons for coming here and for repeating a pilgrimage my grandmother can no longer make. I wanted not only to retrace her steps, but to continue the task she had begun in assembling the scrapbook dedicated to her brother’s life, of preserving who he was as an individual.

Dick’s burial at Arlington buoyed my great-grandfather Brendan. He could have chosen for his son to be laid to rest beside his mother at a local Catholic cemetery in Philadelphia. But he insisted on Arlington because it was important for him that Dick’s death appear in context; while he hadn’t had control over the specific circumstances of his death, Dick Halvey had signed up because of his principles, not because he was forced to go. As a high school student, he had written of the importance of “principled men” willing to take action against the evil in the world.

Standing on this lonely hill, I am reminded of the conviction my great-grandfather and great-uncle shared, and I have to acknowledge that part of Arlington’s power⁠ — part of the power of the collective memorial⁠ — lies in its scale. I can’t help but wait there in stunned and broken awe. The endless white stones, anonymous from a distance, their owners’ names legible only if you kneel close, convey the enormous price of war better than any one of them could alone.

* * *

Like many American politicians of the past 30 years, Donald Trump has occasionally leaned on the phrase “boots on the ground” when talking about taking military action. In 2015, then-candidate Trump said that his plan to destroy ISIS involved seizing any oil that existed in the territory the group controlled. “Any place where they have oil, I would knock the hell out of ‘em, and I would put boots on the ground in those areas; I would take the oil,” he said. Here, calling into MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Trump conflates himself with the troops he’d potentially be commanding, and never seems to think about what sending “boots” abroad might mean in reality.

I think the phrase has persisted and will continue to persist because boots resonate as a symbol and as a substitute. It’s a metaphor that works to erase human distinction in the service of a politician’s threat, but packs just as much power as a stand-in for the dead and the missing, those whose unused boots remain on the battlefield or on the floor of a young man’s empty bedroom. This is also why one of the most common makeshift war memorials is the battlefield cross, a pair of boots with a rifle struck between them, helmet balanced atop the gun. At the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., visitors have been leaving combat boots at the foot of the wall for decades in an attempt to personalize its faceless surface. Most pairs are tied with handwritten tags bearing the names of their owners.

In 1971, the 16th year of the American war in Vietnam, artist Eleanor Antin’s “100 Boots” project brought empty boots to life. The boots she chose are black, matte rubber; they’d reach a soldier’s knee if one ever wore them, though in “100 Boots” none ever does. Antin’s project captures the boots in a series of black-and-white photographs as they gather and convene, commune around a bonfire, board a ferry, and march across open terrain. The boots go on reconnaissance; they bivouac; they climb and take a scrubby hill. Leaving ownerless footprints wherever they go, these boots act as an antidote to the metonym they can’t help but conjure. The negative space that hovers above them is a potent reminder of what we really mean when we say “boots on the ground,” the one word the euphemism obscures: bodies.

* * *

In Tunisia, I fixate on the sheep, huddled everywhere along the road. It’s been five years since I followed the route my grandmother took to Dick Halvey’s grave in Arlington, and now I’m walking on ground where he ate and slept and fought and bled, taking one step farther on a journey that she couldn’t make. The sheep are for sale for Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, now a few days away. They wait in pens and under palm trees, shaggy woolen coats crusted with bits of straw and dirt; I see them crammed into truck beds, their dark eyes wild and dancing.

Sheep watch me on my way to the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in Carthage. Established in 1948, today it’s the resting place of 2,841 soldiers who died in the region. The military buried the last American service members in foreign soil during the Korean War in the 1950s, and while some have gone missing since, no more Americans are intentionally left abroad. Those whose bodies weren’t returned to the States remain in government-run cemeteries in Panama and Belgium, France and the Philippines, Luxembourg and Mexico, Italy and Tunisia, the places where an empire stamped its boots and pitched its tents, leaving behind rubbled towns, English slang, chocolate bar wrappers, and spilled blood.

We pull up to a shut gate. A guard leans down from the booth to tell us that the cemetery is closed because a storm tore up the grounds the night before. “She’s American,” my interpreter says, gesturing at me in the backseat, passport clutched hopefully in my hands.

There aren’t many alive who remember the names on these graves, and fewer still who once spoke those names in greeting or in grief.

When I get inside, the supervisor greets me by asking if I know someone buried in the graveyard. “No,” I say. “But my great-uncle fought in the North Africa campaign. My grandmother’s brother.” He nods and hands me a binder of newspaper clippings about some of those who are buried here: The pilot and crew who went missing in the desert after their plane crashed, and who then wandered for days until they died of thirst, delirious and broken. The Medal of Honor recipient who charged when others fled. Few of the cemetery’s visitors these days are related to anyone buried here; too much time has passed. There aren’t many alive who remember the names on these graves, and fewer still who once spoke those names in greeting or in grief.

The cemetery’s design echoes Arlington’s: sharp white headstones cut into crosses or stars, columns stretching to the edges of the site. The inscription on one catches the sunlight; the letters are painted gold⁠ — this is the grave of the man who earned the Medal of Honor for his service. Today there are leaves and branches on the grass and in the flower beds, the result of last night’s winds. As I stand looking at the stones, the chapel’s bells play a tinny rendition of “God Bless America,” and the music plinks over a lawn mower’s growling in the distance.

On the chapel’s walls, a series of mosaics depicts the North Africa campaign in World War II. Swirls of tiny squares of deep-blue tile make up the sea; smooth beige slabs stand in for mountains and sand. Yellow and turquoise planes hover over the tiled water, looking like a frantic flock of gaudy birds. Curving arrows surge and streak across the maps, each one a marker for the movement of troops over land, for the collision of armies, bodies, and bullets. I focus on the part of the map that shows the region of Tunisia where Dick Halvey spent his last days. Near the place where he died, I press my fingers to the cold tile, and I remember.

* * *

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist who has written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was a 2018 winner of the Poets & Writers Amy Award for poetry.

* * *

Editor: Ben Huberman