When I was a child in Delafield, Wis., I attended Cushing Elementary School. My sisters and I rolled Easter eggs in Cushing Park, and I rode horses at the edge of the old Cushing farm. But I don't remember ever learning a thing about Lt. Alonzo Cushing, a Union officer who was killed at Gettysburg after refusing to retreat in the face of Pickett's Charge.
I only got acquainted with his story last year, when Cushing was awarded the Medal of Honor after being championed for decades by a 90-year-old widow named Margaret Zerwekh and former Sen. Russ Feingold. When I saw the edge of the old farm property recently, with mist lifting off the field, it was stirring to remember Cushing and both of his brothers, also Civil War veterans. Cushing, a West Point graduate, was just 22 when he died.
A week ago came the news that 30 American troops, including 17 Navy SEALs, were killed in Afghanistan. I'm wondering if they will have the same kind of commemoration that Alonzo Cushing did. Memories are, after all, our defense against oblivion. We are beginning to see on the front pages the names of the fallen. We can scarcely start to truly know them without their names.
My Cushing Elementary first-grade teacher — and I have no idea which political party she belonged to — used to sing us a song about veterans, and how each of their uniform buttons are stamped "U.S." — us. We are us, those men, no matter how much we may decry our current long wars — a very different combat mission from the Civil War, which claimed a generation, since, as we know, less than 1 percent of our population has fought in this one.
There is already an angry demand by Long Island Congressman Peter King for an investigation into whether the White House gave improper access to filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, who is making a movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy Seal Team 6. It seems that even the fight for memory is politicized now, and that no sacrifice for country can be viewed as something done for "us."
But I would bet that the families of the fallen forces would like to keep their names alive, if for no other reason than that 150 years from now, someone will remember.