Margraten American Military Cemetery in the Netherlands sits on a quiet rise in the hill country of Holland’s South Limburg. It is late spring, Memorial Day, and the white gravestones are set against a bank of fuchsia rhododendron blooms and the more distant backdrop of wheat and corn shoots made rich by a week of constant rain. The land lies in the ancient path of armies sweeping across Europe. It is not far from Flanders’ fields. Indeed, the poppies are in bloom here along the roadsides.
In the early fall of 1944 American troops crossed the river Maas a few kilometers to the west in their drive toward Germany, months before the Bulge. They probably passed by this very hill. More than 8,000 men—some were boys—are buried here, killed in battles in the Netherlands or Aachen. How the mathematics of death have changed: Almost a decade of modern war in Iraq and Afghanistan has claimed a bit more than half that number and we consider it an extraordinary price, marking each casualty in the national press.
How strange that Americans fight wars today where those we purport to help do not want us, where the moral purposes of our sacrifices are clouded and uncertain.
But 65 years ago a few engagements in this part of Europe—we scarcely remember those battles, for they were almost incidental to the main show—produced 8,000 American deaths, a small part of a much larger sacrifice that occasioned few of the doubts and debates of the present conflict.
That was a different America. It is tempting to think of that period as a simpler time, a moment of moral clarity and national consensus enlisted in a common effort, even if that view surely masks the political complexities and compromises of the war years. But simpler time or not, it is true that Americans were fighting a different war, they were a different people, and they had a different role in the world than they do today. Here in Margraten we see clearly what has changed in our national life.
For one thing, the people who fought reflect a bygone America demographically. The armies raised in the United States in the 1940s came in great part from first or second generation immigrants, and to read the names on the gravestones is to recall an America mainly of European antecedents. There are Polish and Bohemian boys from Chicago and Detroit, Italian kids from New Jersey and southern New England, a Swede or two from the Upper Midwest, and Irish and Jews from New York. You have to walk many rows in the graveyard to find the occasional Spanish surname, and we know that in that segregated army there were very few African Americans. And the given names—how they betray the limbo state of immigrants between their old culture and their new homeland. Herschels and Isidores and Mordecais lie next to Vittorios and Paolos, old men’s names now, Privates First Class names then.
This was an America that still lived mainly east of the Mississippi, when California was still the Golden West and Arizona a great desert. The rise of the Sunbelt was yet to come, though the seeds were being laid at the very moment of these battles in the new shipyards and aviation facilities and ammunition factories of the Southwest and southern California. There are Southerners buried here, of course, but few are from Florida. Looking back from our vantage point more than half a century later we imagine a smaller America, yet to fully settle its great western half, Eurocentric in its experience and vision.
These demographic and geographic changes are simply in the order of things, and we observe them with dispassion. But another change has to do with America’s honor in the world, and it tugs at the soul. Consider: at the head of the cemetery are wreaths on wooden tripods, large garlands of flowers, leaves, and ribbons, here to mark the Memorial Day ceremonies. Many have been laid by local veterans’ groups and others are from Limburger village memorial societies. Let us read the ribbons: Most are written in Dutch, and all of them—more than six decades after the fact—offer thanks for what the Americans did and gave for them. This is not a complicated gratitude. It is simple, direct, and unambivalent.
How strange that Americans fight wars today where those we purport to help do not want us, where the moral purposes of our sacrifices are clouded and uncertain. Walking the rows of Margraten cemetery we can wonder if America will ever again deserve or win the thanks of a beleaguered people in a faraway place.
Peter Eisinger is the Henry Cohen Professor of Urban Affairs at the Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School. He taught for nearly three decades at the University of Wisconsin and subsequently served as Director of the State Policy Center at Wayne State University. He is currently a research affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty, and the author or co-author of seven books and numerous articles and monographs.