Bowdoin At War: Memorials, Monuments and Memory

Christian Potholm, Bowdoin’s DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government, delivered the talk, “Bowdoin At War: Memorials, Monuments and Memory,” April 9, 2015, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

Bowdoin At War: Memorials, Monuments and Memory

Monuments and memorials are many things: statements, remembrances, admonishments, celebrations, eulogies. They provide information, context, emotion and mental stimulation. They stir our memories and give us meanings upon meanings. They are also Rorschach tests, depending on what we bring to them, what feelings and emotions we provide when we engage them. We all bring our different feeling, thoughts, information and background dimensions to each.

Christian Potholm

Christian Potholm

Take the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for example. For me, that monument requires people to be in its frame because by itself, it is sui generis, at once both intensely anti-war and very war-specific, depicting as it does American involvement in Vietnam. Its huge and valid emotional impact therefore requires people sharing their sadness and stories and their emotions about that particular war. Without context and loved ones interacting with it with rubbings, dog tags, combat boots and other mementos of that war, it is simply an anguished cry of loss. Without people grieving and honoring those who fell in that battle as they do, it could well be a sad monument to deaths in an earthquake or tsunami.

The Korean Monument, by contrast, doesn’t require or even want people in its frame when you view it. That memorial is much better seen early morning or late at night without a living person in the picture. For me it is the ultimate war memorial. It is timeless. Ageless. Country-less. Truly cultureless. It commemorates a ghost patrol, all ghost patrols. One minute the soldiers are alive and the next they are dead. And they were in the prime of life when that happened. Like a thunderclap, death comes in war ending lives in a flash. You know just by looking at the ghost patrol that whether the ambush comes in 5 minutes or 5 hours or 5 days, those warriors are doomed. They are alive now and they will live in our memories, but they are as doomed as were their counterparts at Megiddo, Thermopylae, Talas River, Waterloo, the Huertgen Forest, Stalingrad, the Chosen Reservoir or Fallujah.

Our Civil War Memorial here at Bowdoin projects some different things.

First, it is in a cozy setting which is often experienced during the intermission of a play or performance. The light is soft, the surface burnished and ever-new while the humans around it are not necessarily here to commemorate the dead although that can happen. Second, it is very inclusive on several levels for the plaque commemorates not just those who died in the Civil War but also those who served together and who returned to family, college and state.

With the later addition of the Bowdoin graduates who fought for the Confederacy, it is also inclusive because it projects healing and the bringing together of the nation at the end of the brother’s and sister’s war, belated reconciliation as Union and Confederate Bowdoin graduates reunited. Perhaps it would have been better for this narrative if Joshua Chamberlain as president of Bowdoin after the Civil War had included them, instead of Spike Coles and Bowdoin’s librarian Rick Harwell in 1965, but since then, this memorial space connotes forgiving inclusion rather than exclusion.

Also, this monument, by including all those who served, not just those who fell, it can remind us of a number of contemporary historical realities of the times. It is about the living who experienced war, not just the dead.

The first thing I’m reminded of when seeing this memorial is that Maine had the highest enlistment rate of all Northern states during that war and the, second highest death rate after Vermont. Bowdoin and Maine were very faithful to the Union.

Second, in terms of the living, the end of the Civil War commemorated here produced President Grant’s slogan, “Vote the Way You Shot,” one of the most trenchant in the political history of the Republic. Here in Maine, the Civil War helped Republicans dominate the political landscape of the state for 90 years. Many of the Maine Irish who had gone to war as Democrats, for example, came back as Republicans because the Democrats were the slave owners and they were the ones who had tried to destroy the American Union. These Maine veterans returned to make their families vote the way they had shot too. “Vote the Way You Shot” resonated for a long time.

And third, just as the Civil War took the lives of so many young Maine men, it also led to the outmigration of many Maine farmers who survived to the Midwest after the war for Maine boys had discovered from their Indiana and Kansas counterparts that farming soil could be 3 feet deep and not 6 inches. Returning to Maine after the Civil War, they moved their farms and families out west, never to return.

Now contrast the coziness of this memorial and its soft messages it projects with our World War I monument, complete with its own flag. I think President Mills will attest that the refurbishing of that monument this past summer rivaled the building of the Panama Canal in terms of time, money and engineering complexity. That momument is traditionally patriotic in character, stark, flag-crowned.

It also seems fitting that we updated it on the centennial of the outbreak of that war and with a new much larger flag for World War I is always understudied and under- appreciated. But on our campus, we have two monuments connected most poignantly with the Warren Eastman Robinson Class of 1910 arch southeast by Hawthorn Longfellow.

Our huge new flag also symbolically seems to recognize the stupendous loss of life Americans suffered at the end of World War I in less than a year of fighting. One of those battles, the Meuse-Argonne, the one which cost Warren his life, had a butcher’s bill of 26,000 American dead. All told 116,000 Americans died in about 6 months of 1918, mostly in the last 100 days of the war. Think of the fact that some weeks the US suffered 500 to 1000 dead a day. Consider also that at the time, the US population was 103 million versus 315 million today, so it would be as if 330,000 American dead died today in about six months. Causalities at Battle of the Meuse Argonne where Robinson died thus replicated the horrible slaughter of the much earlier battles of the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele.

Of course, one death in battle is too many, but compare these figures with just over 5200 for the entire contemporary period from Gulf War of 1991 to 2015, running through the Gulf War, Iraq II and III, and Afghanistan I and II to the present.   So far, to date all those wars would equal less than 1 week’s death toll in summer 1918 America.

Today, I wonder, will there ever be any monuments in the War on Terror on our campus.

I hope not.

For there, of course, is another side to the Memorial Hall plaque we are standing near, one that goes beyond statistics and historical lessons. And that is our long tradition of Bowdoin students going off to war to serve their country and its causes.

It starts on this wall with the class of 1828 and runs to the present.

From students leaving class to fight for the Union or their home states – whether professors leading their students or our students leading some of their professors – there was purity of cause, to preserve the Union and eliminate slavery or to create the Second American Revolution. And to experience a sense of comradeship, of belonging to a group greater than self.

Moving forward in time, Bowdoin men signed up to fight in World War I and especially in the shared national purpose of World War II coming and going.

And after World War II, there were the heady days of ROTC on the Bowdoin campus. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, every Monday drill was a prominent feature of campus life whether you marched or did not. My senior year some ROTC stalwarts hot-wired an M-48 tank and drove it in the middle of the night to Federal Street across from the President’s house with the 90 mm barrel pointed at the first floor. Martha Coles the wife of then President Coles told me they did not find it amusing, although my recollection is that many in our class did.

Many Bowdoin men served their country in the years following, among them my contemporaries primarily in Germany and Vietnam. Dick Morgan, Gavin Pilton, Bill Barr, Alan Loane, Dick Morgan, Tingy Sewell, Charles Leach, Bob Whelan, John Sweeney, Steve Piper, Paul Constantino and many others. Ironically in 1962, when we graduated (three months before the Cuban Missile crisis), the safe play was go to Vietnam, not Germany which if the balloon of World War III went up, you would be the first to go with it. And the balloon almost did go up with the missiles of October. As in deer hunting and love, then it is better to be lucky than good when you choose war or war chooses you. Ironically too for our mystic cords of memory, more Bowdoin men died during the “forgotten” Korean War than Vietnam.

We need to commemorate all those who served and especially those who did not return.

But it is today’s Bowdoin which is perhaps most surprising for many.

For after just about every graduation, there is a ceremony that afternoon in front of the chapel. Barry and Karin always attend. So do parents and friends and some veterans. It is the very moving commissioning of one or two or three Bowdoin graduates into the U.S. Army, Air Force and especially the Marine Corps and Navy, whose recent ranks have included Chris Pelletier, Ian Merry, Jack Dingess, Boomer Repro and Pack Janes and dozens of others too numerous to name here.

Amazingly enough this happens without ROTC. Without any formal inducement. Without courses in military science. And with many alternatives available to those who join the colors. For example, Gil Barndollar of the Class of 2004 got a Ph.D. from Cambridge in military history and then joined the Marines. Many of those who joined our armed forces over the past two decades could easily have gone to work for Citigroup or Goldman Sachs or a high powered consulting group.

Yet they and others go on to serve their country instead. As one of them put it to me recently, “My friends are becoming doctors and lawyers. I’m doing what I do to make it possible for them to do that.” Another, upon returning from Afghanistan said, “I love my country even when I don’t agree with how its policies are being implemented.”

For those who join the American military today, as for Bowdoin students before them then, “Honor, Duty, Country” is not just a slogan, it is a deeply felt reality.

It is always poignant for me to see these young men and women there setting off on what seems like an unusual Bowdoin career choice, but they do so with pride and dedication.

I always tear up at that ceremony.

And now there are the women of Bowdoin too:

Take Kati Forney Petronio, from the Class of 2007, the tough little hockey goalie who broke her leg two days from finishing the Marine program and came back the next year and conquered it. She went on to serve her country with one tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. Humping 60 pounds or more of gear up and down the Himalayan Mountains (which I understand are a tad higher than Little or even Big Round Top), she earned the right to her point of view. She came back and wrote an article about women in combat for The Marine Corps Gazette, declaring, “Get Over It.” Women can serve in combat such as flying a plane or a helicopter, she declared, but not on the tip of the spear in line infantry. Her story was carried on CNN and FOX

Then came our Sage Santangelo, Class of 2012, also a superb hockey goalie. Already a commercial pilot when she entered the U.S. Marines upon graduation from Bowdoin, she entered the combat vetting process and when she didn’t make it the first time, she insisted that women should, like men, be given two chances not only just the one then granted women. “I want to go to Afghanistan” she said, “and fight.” The Commandant of the Marines saw her story in the Washington Post and on all the news wires and changed the policy so that women get the same two vetting chances as men for combat.

This was national news.

Think of that.

How exciting for Bowdoin, here in the 21st century, two articulate, strong willed Bowdoin women got national prominence on the heavily freighted subject of women in combat.

They were not from Annapolis or West Point or Colorado Springs.

They were from Bowdoin.

And taking two different sides on a very divisive national issue.

That, I would submit, is what a Bowdoin liberal arts education is truly all about.

I think Joshua Chamberlain would have been proud.

Today, serving in America’s military, Bowdon’s men and women continue our long and vibrant national profile and tradition of national service for the Common Good.

Whether it is the Bowdoin Class of 1828 or 2015 and all those in between, we owe these men and women our special thanks and gratitude for their very special service and sacrifice for our country.

Their service is a proud and vibrant and indeed contemporary Bowdoin tradition.

Our monuments and memorials and the memories in our hearts reflect all of this and more.

Thank you.

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