Alma and I arrived just before dusk. The cemetery grounds were near closing. We made the hard decision not to visit John's grave along with the others from Iraq and Afghanistan and to instead join the families from across the country that had gathered for the opening of the exhibit.
The exhibit hall was horseshoe shaped and at the entrance to the cemetery. Inside were nearly 2000 people in various states of emotion. They looked at 1300 small paintings of loved-ones who stared unblinking back at them from around the hall. The artistic quality varied greatly. Rank carried privilege in the selection of artists. We looked at our Private First Class. The Faces of the Fallen captured 1300 of the more than 1500 dead. They stopped collecting images after Veterans Day 2004. Our friend Travis Desiato was killed 4 days later. His family did not attend as there was nothing for them there. There weren't enough artists, or interest, or time.
The next day an art critic for the Washington Post would pan the exhibit droning on about Plato, art and irrelevancies. The faces he should have studied were those of the living milling about the hall, families, friends, crying, laughing, hugging others they had met in happier times or by letter. For them, it mattered less about the quality of the art than the fact that someone had taken the time to volunteer to paint a portrait and remember their sons, daughters, wives, or husbands. With that, most families overlooked the imperfections.
At sunset, the families, gathered around a fountain to hear speeches. Annette Polan who organized the project spoke eloquently about volunteerism and patriotism as this was not government sponsored.
Wolfowitz got his picture taken in front of the photos before the speeches, but he said nothing to the crowd. The administration barely acknowledges the dead and to my knowledge he is the only administration official to attend a funeral; not Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Cheney or Bush. I commented to a photographer that at least he had the balls to show up. The photographer looked at me with alarm and a man with an earpiece 3 feet away took a keen interest in my movements, so I walked away back into the tearful crowd.
Senator Warner, the keynote speaker, arrived late to the assembly of about 1500 people. He said he drove by the Iwo Jima memorial and thought of all the brave men who died there, and how few had died in Iraq or Afghanistan. He told us that the President was committed to continuing to get the troops what they needed. I am not sure what point he was trying to make to the hundreds of families in attendance who had lost their loved ones. These families, from all walks of life, know the meaning of sacrifice and the consequence of poor planning in Washington.
When General Myers walked forward to the podium he passed between me and Mrs. Shea, whose son is buried near John. He made no eye contact with the hundreds he passed. I glared at him as he passed. Mrs. Shea glared too and caught my eye and my expression. No words were said. We understood each other. Gen. Myers gave his speech; an unmemorable blather.
The only line I remember was him saying he was convinced, "this was the right war at the right time". Well I guess he cleared that pearl with public affairs first. I once thought highly of him, but after I heard him say at a Senate hearing "that's above my pay grade" I viewed him more as a lap dog than a leader.
And that's the whole point. The missing ingredient. Its leadership. National leadership.
Addressing several thousand relatives of fallen warriors is not a new phenomenon. It is only new for this group of government officials (I decline to call them leaders) because they failed in all regards to exhibit the integrity and honesty leadership requires.
These officials had an opportunity to make a profound statement of gratitude, of meaning, but they failed to rise to the occasion. They received the tepid applause from the assembled Gold Star Families they deserved.
I submit in contrast, this humble speech delivered by a humble president on a battlefield cemetery that consumed thousands of Americans the summer before. To the families and friends of the fallen, Abraham Lincoln gave this simple speech. One of the greatest in the English language.
The Gettysburg Address
November 19, 1863
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, 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. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.