Matt Hewitt's Memorial Day speech

Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War


We all know that beneath the ground of our town’s two cemeteries lie service members from every branch of service, from every major American conflict in history. beneath each flag lies what remains of a promise and the very definition of bravery, loyalty, and honor.

What also lies beneath that ground is what I’d like to talk about today. For some of you this may be a new perspective, for others it is something you understand all too well, and to maybe just one of you with a loved one under one of these flags, you may find a new comfort. For there is peace beneath this soil. A peace that only a handful in a crowd could understand.

George Santayana is quoted as saying “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

I’d heard this quote many times early in my service, but it wasn’t until nearly the end of it that I finally formed my own understanding of its meaning. It’s no secret that war changes people. It’s nothing new to say that war is horrifying and traumatizing. The surprise is in the dating system. 

Some people will tell you that World War II was fought from 1939-1945 and Vietnam was fought from 1957-1975, six years and 19 years respectively. Those are the official dates. The ones we all learned in school, but either could be further from the truth. Only the dead have seen the end of war.

For as long as there’s a survivor of World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or Operation Enduring Freedom, these wars wage on, and for some the fight continues.

Many of you have lived in the home of a veteran. Many of you have lived under the “special rules” of a veteran household. You’ve seen the blank stares, the unexplained tears and the tired eyes of a loved one after another sleepless night. Some of you see that blank stare and understand that your soldier has once again gone to fight a battle that he’s fought countless times take a deep breath and wait patiently for your soldier to come home again.

This is the day of a veteran. This is the sacrifice people speak of. It’s not only the duty done on the battlefield, it’s also the alterations to the rest of his life. The haunting, the torment, the absence of peace felt daily, or nearly daily. If a man was 18 in 1945, he’d be 86 today. And if that 86 year old was a veteran of World War II, he’s fought his war over and over for nearly 70 years. That is the sacrifice, as only the dead have seen the end of war.

For those who have witnessed a military funeral, I don’t need to tell you that it’s one of the most moving, painful things you can experience. To me the scene is incredibly bittersweet. The flag-draped coffin, uniformed comrades stretched at attention, the gathering family around a sobbing widow, maybe even children. Saddened, terrified, and confused.

The muffled, official, and rehearsed words are heard spoken by a chaplain, a few commands barked sharply in the near distance, a sudden startling volley of rifle fire. And then the sweet part. Taps.

A song that has stirred thousands of emotions for generations. The unmistakable sound of a hero called home. A song that means so many different things to each ear that hears it.

And then silence.


It’s at this time I sometimes feel a grin form on my lips. Because every single time that song is played over a flag-draped coffin, another war has ended. A hero finally has peace.

So as we mark this day of remembrance, try to understand the true sacrifice of those who lie here beneath the flags, perhaps give them a subtle nod as you pass along their graves. Know that yes they are sadly missed, but they are finally at peace, as only the dead have seen the end of war.

In closing, as I look about our crowd here, I see many familiar faces. Many I know to have worn the uniform and served. While I have you here I extend my thanks for all you have done and continue to do, and provided I outlive you promise you these things…

Your sacrifice will not be forgotten. We will stand in salute over your grave. And as your Taps is played...I’ll do my best to force a smile.