Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, civil religion, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, religion, tourism, WWI, WWII

Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire

Ebel, Jonathan H. “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire.” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 183-214.

In “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Jonathan H. Ebel examines twenty-three American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemeteries as American sacred space.[1] The cemeteries are dedicated to fallen soldiers and war workers of World Wars I and II and stand as “powerful symbols for America’s commitment to peace overseas.”[2] By first discerning the fused Christian and American symbolism and their related theologies and mythologies, which are embedded within the memorials and markers, Ebel revealed tensions between these sacred narratives and the histories they contain and conceal.

Ebel presents a concise, consistent, and coherent argument throughout the article. He opens with a quote from a sermon presented to the congregation of Astoria, Oregon’s First Methodist Church by Reverend Aaron Allen Heist on Christmas Day 1919, which compared the Christian incarnation to soldiering. Ebel infers, “Soldiers were to America as Christ was to God: the suffering, serving incarnation of the divine will.” This analogy, connecting Christ’s sacrifice to the sacrifice of the fallen soldier, can be seen throughout the article. In the first three pages, Ebel presents his main thesis, outlines the physical sites he will analyze in order to argue his points, and then explains how he will complicate his argument. His main thesis is that the ABMC intentionally developed these cemeteries as sacred space on foreign soil as a way to legitimize both Christian and American sacrifice. His arguments and evidence show how this organization accomplished their goal. Ebel’s final section explores “spatial and narrative challenges” to the ABMC’s claims of sacrality and their implications for future American sacred spaces.[3]

Ebel, who is a religious history scholar, interpreted the symbolism and landscape of ABMC’s cemeteries through primary source materials provided on their official website. Supplementary primary source materials were gathered from Stars & Stripes; a daily United States military newspaper, an unpublished manuscript written by Major General Thomas North, who served with the ABMC for over forty-five years; War Department (now the Department of Defense) reports; documents found in several archives of personal papers; and PBS’s 2009 documentary, Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries. Ebel’s secondary resources include some of the most important works in this field, which include Ed Linenthal’s Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefelds (1993), Ed Linenthal and David Chidester’s American Sacred Space (1995), Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifce and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (1999), and Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (2009).

The article is divided into seven distinct sections. The first section establishes Ebel’s thesis and the intended approach to his argument. Within this section, he offers an overview to established scholarship. Section two, “Burying the Dead, American Style,” outlines the history of ABMC’s policy development for burying American soldiers on foreign soil. Ebel emphasizes two very important observations at the end of this section. First, he notes that “the ABMC marked the graves of unknown Great War soldiers with crosses or Stars of David in proportion to their rates of service, the graves of all unknown World War II soldiers—with a single exception in Manila—are marked with crosses.”[4] This assertion supports his claims that these American memorials on foreign soil increasingly act to legitimate Christian sacrifice. Second, Ebel claims that eight ABMC World War I cemeteries were dedicated twenty years after entry into the war, acting to reassert America’s greatness for “anyone—French, English, Belgian, German—who might think the American war effort unimpressive.”[5]

The next three sections offer case studies of specific ABMC cemeteries located in France: Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Normandy American Cemetery, and Suresnes American Cemetery. Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is a World War I cemetery and Normandy American Cemetery is from World War II. Suresnes American Cemetery, which houses the war dead from both wars, is unique in that it has been dedicated three times by major American voices: President Woodrow Wilson, American Ambassador to France William C. Bullitt, and General George C. Marshall.

Ebel complicates ABMC’s sacralizing mission in the sixth section, “Ideals, Bodies, and the National Sacred,” although, he moved far too quickly through this section. He mentions various examples of people buried at these sites whose stories do not fit the overarching narrative. However, I was left with more questions than answers. The article’s conclusion calls for a more expansive understanding of these cemeteries and the soldiers buried in them. Ebel points to the heroism and saintliness expounded at these site, but he notes that “the graves hold the bodies of particular people whose own narratives of war may or may not validate this saintly narrative.”[6]

It is interesting that the article appeared in Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, a journal whose mission is to “explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts.”[7] Ebel’s article does indeed focus on religious symbolism, but it strongly concentrates on nationality, government process, and the military. Searching the journal’s online portal, numerous articles that address issues of war, the military, and soldiers have been published in this journal. If I had read this article without knowing where it was published, I would not have considered this particular journal; however, after further consideration, I am not sure that a journal dedicated to military history or religious history would publish content containing a strong symbolic interpretation such as this article.

[1] According to the ABMC’s official website, they are responsible for 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 27 federal memorials, monuments and markers, which are located in 16 foreign countries, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the British Dependency of Gibraltar; three of the memorials are located within the United States. “Cemeteries & Memorials,” American Battle Monuments Commission, accessed February 1, 2017, https://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials. Ebel’s research focuses on the twenty-three cemeteries that were under the ABMC’s jurisdiction as of 2012.

[2] Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries, directed by Robert Uth (PBS Home Video, 2009).

[3] Jonathan H. Ebel, “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 188.

[4] Ibid., 195-96.

[5] Ibid., 196.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Journal website: http://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?show=aimsScope&journalCode=rfmr20.