Rants and Raves

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Meditations on graves

The day I landed in Poland in 1991, I was met at the airport and taken by car through Warsaw to the small town that would be my home for the next two years. On the way out of the city we passed a park with an obelisk and a small plaza facing the street. My Polish colleague told me, “That is one of the few monuments to the Red Army that we haven’t torn down.”

Over the next few years, I had many occasions to pass by the monument and had always wondered why it was still standing. Then one day my business took me to that part of town and I had occasion to walk through the park on my way to meet my clients. There I found the reason it is still standing, and indeed, is still being maintained at city expense.

It is a cemetery. It was impossible to see from the street because the gravestones are small irregular polygons, no more than a foot high, each with only a star on the top and a number. They are screened from view by the park’s trees. Each number represents a Russian soldier, whose names are evidently recorded somewhere because lately there have appeared small metal signs stuck in the graves with names on them, brought by relatives in Russia who are now free to travel to Poland to visit their dead.

Flanking the obelisk are two statues of heroic Russian soldiers standing guard over fallen comrades and towards the street are the predictable bas reliefs I have seen all over Eastern Europe, of soldiers of the Red Army being welcomed by the grateful population. The inscription on the obelisk reads, “Pamieci Zolnerzy Armii Radzieckiej Poleglych O Wyzwolenie Polski Spod Okupacji Niemieckeij w Latach 1944-1945”. (Memorial to the Soldiers of the Soviet Army Who Died in the Liberation of Poland from the German Occupation in the Years 1944-1945.)

That is why it is still standing, in spite of the cruel irony of the Soviet Union claiming to be the liberators of Poland, after having first conspired with the Nazis to invade and then to occupy the country for the next two generations. Poles will not tear down the monument because it is, after all and in spite of everything, the gravesite of brave men.

This brought to mind a conversation I had in Athens with two Objectivist friends, in which I defended the idea of non-rational values. Not irrational but non-rational. Values which we hold dearly but cannot explain rationaly. There may very well be rational reasons for these, in fact I strongly believe that they can be explained by evolutionary biology, but for most of the lifetime of the human race we have been totally unaware of evolution and even today most human being have scant inkling of its importance in shaping human nature. Decent people believe these things because we believe them, although we cannot articulate why. In fact, the presence or absence of these values goes a long way towards defining decency.

The example I used was the contrast with the behavior of the Poles in how the Soviets treated the tomb of the flyers of the Kosciusko Squadron in Lvov.

In 1920 Poland, newly re-formed after more than a hundred and thirty years of partition between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, went to war with the Soviet Union after being convinced that the new USSR intended to absorb the newly independent lands formerly occupied by the Russian Empire.

The Red Army invaded Poland with the intention of sweeping through Western Europe. Lenin confidently expected to be in Berlin by winter - not an unrealistic expectation given the state of Germany in 1921. Instead, Soviet forces were met by Polish cavalry, both sides fighting with mounted troops armed with rifles, sabers and lances, transported by trains which carried heavy cannon and machine guns. It was, in fact, the last cavalry war. (Since then horse soldiers have been used many times, but as mounted infantry.)

The Red wave broke on the shores of the Visla River and was repelled in a decisive battle outside of Warsaw by the citizens of the city and the Uhlans of Marshal Pilsudski.

Into this odd mix of modern and classical weaponry, they managed to put together an air force. Seven America pilots, all veterans of the First World War but none of them Polish, volunteered to fly for Poland and some planes were found for them. They named themselves the Kosciusko Squadron, after Taddeus Kosciusko, the Polish military engineer who fought for America in our Revolution, designing the fortifications of West Point and founding the Army Engineers.

Later, Washington and Jefferson managed to return the favor by pleading with the Empress Catherine the Great for Kosciusko’s life, after he was captured by Russian forces in an attempt to free Poland from the partitioning powers. He is entombed in Krakow, in the crypts under Wawel Castle with Polish kings and poets. He lies under Polish and American flags and the inscription “Za Wolnosc - Wasza I Nasza" (For Freedom – Yours and Ours).

The planes they found for the American flyers were evidently an amazing collection of rattletraps no totally sane man would trust his life to. But fly them they did – although there were instances when the plane and pilot returned from a mission mounted on a horse-drawn wagon. Of the seven flyers, three died in the war. The Polish nation built them a tomb in the then-Polish city of Lvov.

After the Second World War, parts of Eastern Poland were incorporated into the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, including the city of Lvov. The inhabitants were uprooted and moved to the strip of Eastern Germany that was seized and added to West Poland. The Soviets took posthumous revenge on the Kosciusko Squadron by burying their tomb under a garbage dump.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, they cleared away the garbage and re-consecrated the tomb. In spite of all the problems of Ukraine, I’ll always have a soft spot for them because of that.

This was the point of my relating that story; even though I don’t believe you can defend this conviction on purely rational grounds and in spite of the fact that I don’t personally care what happens to my body after death, something inside screams that it is wrong to desecrate the graves of brave men.

Something like this was my reaction on first visiting a Polish military base and seeing that their cemetery had gone to seed during the communist years and was only then being cleaned up and cared for. I was struck by the feeling that an army which does not honor its dead, is an army that will not fight.

Sometimes it seems that the dishonor of a foe so swinish as to desecrate the bodies of their enemies is a perverse sort of honor. One thinks of the treatment of the body of Leonidas of Sparta by the Persians or the defenders of the Alamo by Generalissimo Santa Ana.

Hardly anybody now remembers the heroes of the Kosciusko Squadron. I have been trying to find enough information to write at length about them without success. You now know almost as much as I do. I do not even know their names, except for their leader, Merrian C Cooper who survived the war and became a Hollywood producer. Though he never made what would have been the greatest movie of his career, the story of his adventures in Poland, you have almost certainly seen his magnum opus. So, remember him on behalf of his comrades the next time you see King Kong on the Late Show.


  • At 10:17 AM, Blogger Edward said…

    You can learn a little bit more about the squadron (but not much more) at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_7th_Air_Escadrille

  • At 8:08 PM, Blogger Saint in Exile said…

    Poles will not tear down the monument because it is, after all and in spite of everything, the gravesite of brave men.

    This reminded me of an excerpt of the speech given by Colonel Tim Collins of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, prior to the start of the invasion of Iraq in 2003...

    "There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory... If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves."

  • At 1:48 PM, Blogger artfrayn said…


    There have been at least two books written about the Kosciuszko Sq. - Flight of Eagles by Karolevitz and Fenn and Kosciuszko Sqaudron 1919-1921 by Kopanski and Kozak. There have also been a number of plastic model kits of the squadron's aircraft and decal sheets with it's markings available over the years. Please let me know (rory_goodwin@verizon_net - replace spaces with 'dots') if you'd like more info...


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