Speaking of the Dead: Writing, Representation, and the Afterlives of Warriors

As a scholar, the question of how to properly represent in writing that which was first flesh and blood is a constant problem. In my book Bodies of Peace, I lay out the discourses of four American Christian practitioners, exploring the logic in their work which connects ecclesiology and pacifism, but leave to one side the ethnographic side of the coin. For example, in choosing to speak of Dorothy Day’s doctrine of the mystical body, I say little about the daily grind of life in the New York Catholic Worker house, and how this doctrine finds purchase in the daily decisions of hospitality and resistance. Such are the decisions of any book, I think, but it opens up the larger scholarly and moral question of how to make visible the invisible, or more broadly, what it means for the dead to be represented by the living. Whether in how we appropriate the work of a complex thinker like Dorothy Day, or remember more troubling figures like John Howard Yoder, representing the dead is an act of remembering and recalling, selection and pruning. Memory, as Miroslav Volf reminds us, is never morally neutral.

Jonathan Ebel’s recent G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion opens up this question in a provocative manner, exploring the lives and afterlives of American soldiers as emissaries of American civil religion. Ebel’s work is a triumph and should be widely read for many reasons, but what is poignant on this question of representing the military dead. For Ebel, G.I.s across American history are, quite literally, the flesh of the American word, the living, breathing extensions of an American ethos which are consubstantial with American ideals. The body of soldiers themselves have, in good Christological fashion, a will which is united with the national Father, but submit themselves to the will of the Father for the sake of saving the world. In life, they project American power and ideals globally, but in death, the power of their representation becomes even more potent.

In a particularly troubling chapter on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Ebel describes the life of one Charles White Whittlesey, a New York attorney-turned-war hero who was present at the 1921 interment of the Unknown soldier. The Unknown Soldier, brought to America from the European front after World War I, is for Ebel, the perfectly malleable example of a soldier in death. Nothing is known about the Unknown Soldier, either in their identity, their actions during combat, their religious affiliation, or their moral life; the body interred had no known family affiliations or preferences. But in death, the body buried became a symbol for American ideals, and thus, in death became potent in a way which eclipsed the particulars of their life.

This perverse remembering is not monolithic, but takes numerous forms. In later chapters, Ebel details the manifold ways in which death provides opportunity for a further projection of national ideals: in burial stones which signify religious affiliation and service dates, and in film, celebrations, and literature which project the dead in the image of the living’s ideals. In Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Things They Carried, O’Brien prefaces his stories of his Vietnam comrades in this way, as a hyperbolic summation of Ebel’s point, I think:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.1

Whether O’Brien’s comment is one of hyperbole, it resonates with Ebel’s concern that our memories of the dead must remain sensitive to that which cannot be subsumed by national narratives. To return to the story of Whittlesey, we see one tragic way of resistance to this, Ebel says. Whittlesey watched this interment, a moment of national fervor, and commented to his friend simply, “I should not have come here.” In combat, Whittlesey had led a battalion which had, by military standards, been an utter failure, but one which in popular imagination was a raging success. As a consequence, the lawyer Whittlesey was lost during the war, and only the hero-warrior Whittlesey came home, his former identity eclipsed by this new identity, a living mirror to the dead Unknown Solider. To resist this fate, Whittlesey committed suicide on a boat cruise by jumping overboard, placing his body—and his self—beyond the reach of representation; without a body, he could not, in death, become another version of the Unknown Soldier.

Beyond the particulars of how our military dead are remembered, Ebel’s work provides a sobering reminder to those of us who traffic in the writings of the dead, that our scholarship owes a debt to the dead to render them as more than ideals, but as flesh and blood. There will be the inevitable elisions of memory, but it is here that the Gospels’ treatment of Christ push us beyond the problem which Ebel highlights in two ways. First, in the Gospels, there is consistent emphasis on the details of the life of Jesus, so as to refuse—even in his absence—the subsuming of Christ into a symbol of our own making. Secondly, as Nicholas Lash has roundly pointed out, the resurrected Christ continually eludes us, moving forward before us, so that representing Christ—even by pointing to the details of his life—is not sufficient, for the living and resurrected Christ has an ongoing present and a future. Likewise, those of us who seek to remember the dead, and to use their work for the problems of the present must be aware of Scripture’s counsel regarding the patriarchs, that “though dead, they still speak” (Hebrews 11:4), that the lives of the dead are not simply raw materials for us to be remade into our own projects, but particular collections of grace, failing, desire, intention, and mystery which must be remembered fully. To do otherwise is to repeat the failing of nation, molding the silent dead into our own narratives, and projecting their influence for our own desire.

  1. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Broadway, 1998), 65-66.
Myles Werntz

About Myles Werntz

Myles Werntz is the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He is the author of Bodies of Peace: Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, Witness, and the co-editor of four other volumes, including the forthcoming Sport and Violence: History, Theory, Practice, with Craig Hovey and John White. His research interests include war and peace, immigration and the use of conscience in modern discourse, and how these intersect with traditional theological loci such as ecclesiology.

Myles Werntz

Myles Werntz

Myles Werntz is the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He is the author of Bodies of Peace: Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, Witness, and the co-editor of four other volumes, including the forthcoming Sport and Violence: History, Theory, Practice, with Craig Hovey and John White. His research interests include war and peace, immigration and the use of conscience in modern discourse, and how these intersect with traditional theological loci such as ecclesiology.

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