For Memorial Day: The Highest and Purest Democracy

A submission for Memorial Day weekend:

The Highest and Purest Democracy: Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn’s Iwo Jima Eulogy to his Fallen Comrades

Roland Gittelsohn was a Marine Corps chaplain in World War II, and he was on Iwo Jima just after the battle. One of the other chaplains, who was organizing the cemetery there for fallen Americans, asked Rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver a sermon. That sermon has become a Marine Corps legend, called “The Highest and Purest Democracy.” Here are a few excerpts:

THIS IS PERHAPS THE GRIMMEST, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the individual who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now an individual who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

WE DEDICATE OURSELVES, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich and poor…together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews…together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. [emphasis added]

WHEN THE FINAL CROSS has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen: We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again people seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

It is doubly ironic, then, that Gittelsohn was not able to deliver the sermon as originally planned because of prejudice:

The 5th Marine Division’s Protestant Chaplain, Warren Cuthriel, asked his colleague, Jewish Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, to prepare and deliver a sermon at the nondenominational dedication ceremony for the 5th Marine Division’s cemetery. Rabbi Gittelsohn worked through the night on his sermon for his fallen comrades. However, the prejudice of the day reigned as the other Protestant and Catholic chaplains expressed their concerns that a Jewish Rabbi would be delivering the dedication sermon at a mostly Christian cemetery. Gittelsohn spared his friend any embarrassment and did not deliver his sermon during the dedication, but did deliver it to his Jewish congregation at their own ceremony.

Something to inspire us as we remember the sacrifices of our military this weekend, and as we face another test of courage today that spares none of us from the call.

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