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Memorial Day

Written Friday, May 1, 2009

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." A corollary of his saying could be "The unexamined holiday is not worth celebrating." What would we find if we examined Memorial Day?

The holiday we now call Memorial Day had originally been set aside on May 30, 1868, as Decoration Day, a time to remember the Civil War dead and to clean up and decorate their graves with flowers.

It could be argued that Decoration Day got off to a politicized start. According to Civil War scholar William Blair, "Throughout the South, many of the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers lay where they had fallen, often in shallow or mass graves. Within a year after the surrender, the government began to collect the bodies of the nation’s soldiers and reinter them in national cemeteries." These "Cities of the Dead," the title of Blair’s book on the subject, would eventually number eighty-three throughout the country. The problem was they were for Union soldiers only--their graves dug, marked, tended and paid for by the Federal government.

The national parades to honor the Union dead were marched in by their uniformed Union compatriots. No such parades or commemorative speeches were allowed their reinstated fellow Americans, the vanquished Confederates--no waving of Confederate flags, of course, nor marching in Confederate uniforms. A telling detail that describes the condition of the South right after losing the war was the exception made in the edict never again to wear the Confederate "grey." Confederate soldiers were allowed to wear their uniforms only if they "had no other clothing." But even then, these men had to strip their old uniforms of any military buttons, trim and insignias.

And what of the African American fallen who had fought for the Union and were promised the vote but were left buried among the rebel dead at Arlington or removed to a segregated section of the Cemetery?

In 1918 at the end of World War I, the holiday became known as Memorial Day to honor Americans who died fighting in any war. Still calling the holiday Decoration Day, my maternal grandmother, her parents and grandparents in the Southwest corner of Missouri would pile into their Studebaker "touring car" to drive out to the family plot to clean up and decorate the graves of deceased relatives, some of whom happened to be Confederate soldiers. I can’t know what the day meant to these forebears--I know my grandmother’s grandfather was a Republican, the party of Lincoln--but I guess a lot of the time was devoted to standing around while my great great grandfather fixed the expected flat tires getting to the cemetery out in the country.

I remember my mother mentioning that when she was a child her family made a picnic of these Decoration Day expeditions, no doubt taking along a basket of my great grandmother Nanny’s nonpareil Southern fried chicken.

When I was in my twenties working in New York, if May 30 happened to fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, the Memorial Day holiday often meant a Four-day Weekend. Thoughts of war were far from my mind and those of my friends. Memorial Day had become a Harbinger of Summer after which in those days men and women could wear white shoes. The National Holiday Act of 1971 under Nixon changed the date from May 30 to the last Monday of May, insuring a three-day holiday.

In 2000 Clinton signed in a silent "National Moment of Remembrance," at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day. It is not out of disrespect that the people I know don’t observe this moment. They simply never heard of it before.

Having lived a good chunk of my married life in a village in northern Westchester County commuting distance from the City of New York in whose environs battles of the Revolutionary War were fought, I can personally remember Memorial Day as being something off the easel of Norman Rockwell.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, graying World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans assembled a color guard that marched after a police car and in advance of the local fire trucks and the volunteer firemen in their dress uniforms. The people scattered along the sidewalks had spilled out of their homes along the parade route. The Ladies Auxiliary followed their firemen, trailed by the uniformed Little League, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Sometimes a visiting high school band joined the parade. A few times, recorded music blasted from the speakers of a slow-moving van. Once there was no music at all but just the shuffle of the marchers’ feet making their way to the bronze plaque listing the local war dead affixed to a wall of the Community House on Main Street, where the parade stopped while a vet propped up a wreath in remembrance. The color guard fired their rifles into the air and one of the veterans played "Taps" on his bugle after which boys dove to the ground to pocket the coveted empty rifle shells.

Then the whole parade headed down Main Street’s hill to a more elaborate free-standing war memorial across from which a large American flag fluttered on a tall pole. This is where, before the wreath-laying, rifle-shooting and "Taps" was repeated, a local minister would deliver some words about those who had "given their lives for their country, so that we could enjoy freedom."

I would be O.K. with Memorial Day if people told the truth about the horrors of war, about the number of dead on both sides, about its effects on the people who lived through it, the women who became widows, the children who became orphans, the men and women who came home with mangled bodies and/or post-traumatic stress disorder, the people who became refugees, the property destroyed, the land and water that was poisoned, and even, as a Polish poet put it, the trees in the forest that had been "put to the sword."

As for giving your life for your country, Jesus said, "There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends." Not country, but "friends." The military inserts its soldiers into intensely dangerous situations which many veterans feel that no one can understand unless they were there--why they often can’t talk about their experiences. The extreme situations bind soldiers as friends—an artificially created subset of "fighting for your country." In this artificially created subset, friends may heroically attempt to save each other.

Some soldiers are honestly inspired to enlist, to put their lives on the line because they have been told their country needs protecting or that an ally needs help. But what if the reason for going to war is a lie, as it was in Iraq? Doesn’t the very existence of Memorial Day, special military cemeteries and monuments perpetuate war by saying that fighting a war is how to become a hero, especially sacrificing your life in it? A lie to cover up another lie? A lie to give false solace to the survivors of the dead?

If on Memorial Day we told the truth about war, we could deeply and communally grieve for the loss of all that beautiful life. We could lament the waste, the tragedy that all those lives were cut short, maybe before they had a chance to find out who they were. We could reveal who profited by war. We could talk about the injustices—the lack of economic options, for example--that prepare the ground for enlistment. We could be sad together about the irreparable harm we do to the earth. We could consider together what other rite of passage we could offer our youth to become heroes. We could vow never to let war happen again.

War today is like the scene in Stephen Spielberg’s "Indiana Jones," in which Jones, played by Harrison Ford, is trapped by a huge guardsman, costumed in billowing Turkish pants from the days of the Ottoman Empire. A skilled swordsman, the guard proudly chops the air with his saber—whish, whish, whish—as he confronts Jones. Jones glances at the audience with a bemused shrug, withdraws his gun and blows the guard away.

What good are flesh and wits against the hard technology of land mines, cluster bombs, cruise missiles, bunker busters, depleted uranium weaponry, napalm, suicide bombers, car bombs, drones, and the threat of nuclear weapons? We know what happened in Hiroshima. It is not just the swordsman who is the anachronism; it is war itself.

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