Portraits for Veterans Day
By Nancy Arbuthnot
On Friday, November 11, Americans will celebrate Veterans Day, a federal holiday honoring the men and women who serve in the armed forces of our country--members of the US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. Formerly called Armistice Day, it was originally celebrated on November 11, 1919 to honor World War I soldiers.
The date was selected because it was on this day at 11:00 AM in 1918 that the Allied Nations and Germany reached a cease-fire, or Armistice, which led to the end of the war. In 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day so that all military personnel could be honored. Today I want to use this space to give thanks to those now in the military who serve our country.
In thinking about Veterans Day, I found my thoughts continually drawn to two military figures—one a poetic fictionalization, one real--who died in war. Although I know that Memorial Day is the official time to remember military personnel who died in battle or from a wound sustained in battle, I feel that portraits of these two figures—my reflections on their sense of self, service and sacrifice—are the best way that I can honor current veterans. I will start with a story about Capt. Churchill Bragaw who served in the US Army in WWII, and weave into it a poem by William Butler Yeats about an Irish aviator in WWI.
In the spring of 2004 at age 90, my father-in-law, a WWII chaplain with the 5th Army’s 36th Infantry Division, began to speak about the war for the first time. The night before he died that August, he mentioned a young company officer in his division, Capt. Churchill Bragaw. Calling him “the greatest man I had ever met,” he spoke of meeting with him one time in particular, the evening that Bragaw had received orders to establish a bridgehead across the Rapido River along the heavily fortified German line, orders they both knew to be almost futile and demanding incredible sacrifice. That night, Bragaw turned over his personal belongings, asking that they be returned to his family, and the next day he was killed in action.
Until a month ago, that was all we knew about this young officer other than that a building at North Carolina State University, his alma mater, was named for him. Then, in mid-October—two years after the 2014 100th anniversary of my father-in-law’s birth, when my husband had pledged to himself to someday visit NC State to honor Bragaw’s memory—we found ourselves in the foyer of Bragaw Residence Hall. Standing before the painted portrait there, I was mesmerized by the confident expression and clear, steady gaze of the young man who had so stoically confronted his death.
In the next few days as I thought about Capt. Bragaw, the words of Yeats’s poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” kept inserting themselves into my mind:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss,
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Hear Yeats reading the poem, with an animated photo of him, here: ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCZ1uRYX3iU
This poem is composed in a martial, four-beat line of four quatrains rhying abab. In the poem, the speaker, an anonymous aviator (but widely identified as Major Robert Gregory, the son of Yeats’s associate Lady Gregory) reveals his reasons for enlisting in the British forces during the First World War.
Like Bragaw, the speaker assumes that he will die in battle. He opens with a bold assertion (“I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere in the clouds above”), followed by twelve lines (a second couplet and two quatrains) that establish his reasons for fighting. First, he presents a list of negatives--he did not enlist out of hatred for the Germans or for love of the British; his service will not help his own people; neither duty nor glory motivated him—then closes with a simple assertion that he enlisted on impulse, for his own personal pleasure (“A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the skies”).
But the poem does not end here. The last quatrain makes a remarkable, unexpected turn as the speaker unequivocally rejects his private “delight” and excitement or “tumult” for a deeply considered acceptance of social responsibility, of participating in the great sufferings of humankind, and a new awareness of the significance of death in giving life meaning: “I balanced all, brought all to mind/…./In balance with this life, this death.”
Like the fictionalized Major Robert Gregory, the fully human Henry Churchill Bragaw demonstrated in his life and with his death the balance between passionate commitment and selfless sacrifice. Recognized before the war as “quite a fellow, a wonderful man, a fine manager, and very popular"; “one of the most interesting and attractive persons I have ever met”; a man who, had he lived, “would have become one of the most famous persons in North Carolina,” he was recognized during the war for his heroic concern for his men. After his death, the War Department awarded him a Silver Star for his actions along the Rapido River:
Putting his men in a column with intervals between them, he led the way through the heavily-mined] field[to the river]. During this passage eight men were severely woundedby mines. Each time the commander went back among his men, bolstering their courage by his own actions and words. Reaching the river he led his men across under violent artillery, mortar, and small arm fire, and attacked the formidable enemy positions on the steep opposite bank. He led his company into the foe's outer defenses through bands of enemy wire. While heavy fire pinned his troops to the ground, he exposed himself to make a personal reconnaissance, seeking to improve his positions. In so doing he was killed by enemy fire.
Twenty years ago, during a sojourn in the south of France, my husband and children and father-in-law and I visited the American cemetery in Draguignan. (After World War II, the federal government offered next of kin the option of bringing home the bodies or re-interring them in overseas American cemeteries under construction). Actually, as we had arrived just as the gates were closed, the guard, his back to us, walking inexorably away, we could only peer in silence through the black bars at the rows upon rows of white crosses. I vowed then to return there one day, to visit the graves of those who served with my father-in-law with the 36th. I vow now to visit the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery as well, where Henry Churchill Bragaw’s remains rest.
There, I will give thanks for the men and women in uniform, past and present, serving our country. I will read Yeats’s poem again as I contemplate again how to best use our hearts and minds to live faithfully in the world. And, remembering the opening words of so many passages in the Bible—“And there was war again”—I will pray for peace.