Prominently displayed above the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery’s amphitheatre are the words “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.” This phrase is written just feet away from Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns, a resting place for unclaimed soldiers.
The men and women who lie in this tomb are undisturbed by mourning loved ones--their tomb is lonely, except for a perpetual guard watching over the dead. The Unknown Soldier rests for eternity without a name, and yet, his death is still said to be “sweet and glorious” simply because of the country he died for.
Can the same be said for all those who lie in Arlington? Do all those who die, die sweetly and with glory? Take, for example, the soldier who is killed accidentally by friendly fire--can his death be called sweet and glorious? And what of the soldier who lives out his death for years after the war, slowly losing his life to the shrapnel in his chest?
Even if a soldier’s death is sweet, whether or not it is glorious must be determined by cause for which he fights. The deaths of ISIL fighters may be considered glorious by others fighting for the same cause and simultaneously seen as a waste of human life by the rest of the world. Can anybody definitively say who is right?
Perhaps it is more important to ask if any death can truly be called sweet. Perhaps the words which greet all who enter Arlington’s amphitheatre are simply a beautiful lie told to dull the pain of losing a loved one. While life is unique, all death is the same. Do the circumstances surrounding the death change it in any meaningful way? The death of a human, especially a human so dedicated to his country must be seen only as an loss.
And yet, to discount the sacrifice made by soldiers is obviously wrong. To give a life in order for others to live their own is doubtless an act worthy of praise; furthermore, it is a necessity. Men and women will always be called to defend our nation from invading powers. Why shouldn’t their deaths be sweet and glorious? Why should we not praise them as heros? Their sacrifice is what keeps our dream alive.
In a nation defined by war, those who criticize warriors tread on thin ice. It is the natural tendency of a people to glorify war, it helps us make peace with the horrors, and the loss.
But critical to human nature is an abhorrence of death. We are biologically hard-wired to love life, to fight to preserve our own and those of others. But a nation is a greater thing than a single human life, a greater thing than many lives; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. For this reason, death for a country has the potential to be sweet and glorious. But death will always carry with it a bitter feeling, a shadow that we all recognize. We cannot wish it away with pretty words, or be afraid to criticize violence in all its forms. So maybe to die is sweet and glorious, but the greater glory, the greater sweetness comes not from dying, but from living for one’s country.
—Justin Ebert on behalf of the Demosthenian Literary Society
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