On a cold and overcast May morning, I rode the commuter line from Gare St. Lazare in Paris to Suresnes-Mont Valerien and made the short, steep walk from the train station to the gates of Suresnes American Cemetery. Suresnes is one of twenty-three overseas military cemeteries administered and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) and one of eight holding those who died during America’s involvement in the Great War. From the steps of a chapel and memorial situated slightly uphill from the graves area, one can look back across a pristine cemetery and the near western suburbs of Paris to the city itself.
A Memorial is transformed
Woodrow Wilson came to Suresnes on Memorial Day 1919 to address a crowd of soldiers, statesmen, and interested citizens. The landscape was different then. The Eiffel Tower was visible, to be sure, but the beautiful box-pruned lindens, rhododendron and lilac had not yet been planted. The lush, green grass that now makes the white marble crosses stand out so brilliantly was not here either. And there were more graves in Suresnes ninety-one Mays ago. The disinterment and repatriation of roughly sixty percent of the Great War dead and the rearrangement of those who stayed behind made Suresnes (and all ABMC cemeteries) less burial ground and more memorial park. Wilson and more than seven thousand others gathered on a site that was prepared and ordered, to be sure; but America’s finest architects and landscape designers had not yet imparted their interpretation to a war that had ended less than seven months earlier.
The task of interpreting the Great War belonged to Wilson that day. He was up to the challenge. With characteristic eloquence and striking theological audacity he directed the gathered crowd to incline their collective ear to the dead among whom they stood. An anonymous reporter for the Stars and Stripes recorded him saying:
If they were here, what would they say? … ‘Forget all the little circumstances of the day. Be ashamed of the jealousies that divide you. We command you in the name of those who, like ourselves, have died to bring the councils of men together, and we remind you what America said she was born for. She was born … to show mankind the way to liberty. She was born to make this great gift a common gift. She was born to show men the way of experience by which they might realize this gift and maintain it.
It would be hard to argue from war-time documentary evidence that Wilson’s spiritualism was flawed. The war dead would not have spoken in such eloquent terms, but many of the American men and women who helped wage the Great War held similar ideals and imagined their war-time experiences as religiously enlivening and personally, nationally, and globally redemptive. But just as the passage of time (along with the skilled hands of builders, planters, and gardeners) has changed the landscape of Suresnes, so has it also altered the memorial landscape and transformed this sacred site from utopia to heterotopia. Similar changes have touched the memorial landscapes of all ABMC cemeteries, but Suresnes is the one place where the changes have been acknowledged. For while Wilson and the crowd walked and spoke and, some at least, wept among the dead of only one world war, earlier this month I walked among the dead of two: the Great War and, to borrow from Studs Terkel, the Good War. With one very specific exception made after World War I for the Roosevelt family, Suresnes is the one ABMC cemetery that brings the dead of the two wars together.
A Christological vision of the dead soldier
The segregation of dead by war was done for practical reasons, but the religious and ideological implications are nevertheless significant. A sealed cemetery argues for control over war making while it exerts control over war imagining; it allows for a more focused narrative of war and more worshipful mourning; it clearly delimits the civic sacred. What would it mean to place the dead of two wars in conversation at these sites of pilgrimage? What would the dead “say” to each other? What would the mixing mean to those who came to mourn and remember? We don’t need Wilson to channel them for us. The voices of the dead of World War II might contest much of what made the human cost of World War I meaningful. Look, they might say, at what your blood bought us. The voices of the dead of World War I might speak back and contest the confidence, the glory, and the narrative of sacrificial heroism that defines American consciousness of the Good War. Once before, they might say, we believed we were saving the world and gave our lives in the process. We cannot know what the precise messages would be. That is the essence of the problem.
Suresnes was unsealed in the early 1950s to welcome twenty-four unknown dead of World War II. But these dead did not join the row-on-row ranks of the knowns of World War I. Instead, they were buried between two sections of the graves area and arranged in the shape of a Latin cross. (The new section of the cemetery was dedicated in 1952 by AMBC Chairman General George C. Marshall.) This was a remarkably intentional act in the highly intentional world of military cemetery planning and reflects a strongly Christological view of the dead American soldier present, though less explicit, at all the ABMC cemeteries I visited.
I am not interested in exploring here the possibility that the cruciform arrangement includes one or more soldiers who were not Christian or who, though Christian, might have preferred a less theological design. Rather, on Memorial Day 2010, it seems more valuable to use this doubly anomalous feature of Suresnes American Cemetery to prompt even greater attention to past and present interweavings of Christian and American narratives and the good and ill to which they have contributed.
There is, to state the obvious, no way to de-situate ourselves in history, to think about the men and women who died in the Great War without consciousness of the Good War. We can, however, peel back a few of the religio-political overlays that have made “meaning” too easy to establish and thus work toward a better, more accurate memory of America’s war and the men and women who waged them. Perhaps then we can honor America’s fallen soldiers and the nation they served because, not in spite of, their humanity, their limited vision, and their sinfulness.
Jonathan Ebel is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois. He is the author of Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War (Princeton, 2010)