This weekend, America celebrates Memorial Day. This last Monday in May has come to mean a number of things; the end of the school year and the commencement of summer vacation. For those of us living along the Atlantic Seaboard, Memorial Day marks the beginning of beach season as well as the time we begin casting a leary eye to the tropics as the six months long hurricane season begins June 1.
This weekend our airwaves and internet screens will pound us with non-stop commercials. Everything from furniture to clothes to cars will be on sale under banners of red, white and blue. American flags will make their appearances on front porches and mailboxes this weekend. This salute to nationalism will build to a crescendo on the Fourth of July weekend, with its own round of sales and a barrage of fireworks that will keep our dogs and cats on edge into the wee hours all weekend. The message from this juxtaposition of nationalism with an orgy of materialism could not be any clearer: Do your patriotic duty, be a good consumer.
Lost in this tsunami of commercial advertising, flag waving, beach trips, barbeques and beer is the actual reason for Memorial Day. There is no small amount of irony in this celebration of unabashed consumerism and vacation season that Memorial Day is ultimately a day of mourning, of remembering the dead from the near continual wars America has fought since its founding. It is not about freedom (that’s Independence Day) and it’s certainly not about consumerism (that’s the Christian holiday which formerly celebrated the birth of Jesus).
It’s about the fallen.
Paying the Ultimate Price
Memorial Day is designed to recall the human costs of war in a very intentional manner. In American terms (counting only American casualties, excluding those of allies and foes), that number is currently 1.1 million.
The American Civil War, which Memorial Day first commemorated, was the costliest military engagement with a half million American soldiers killed in that five year internecine struggle to the death. World War I would be sold to the Americans as “the war to end wars” but the just over 100,000 American casualties in that event would pale in comparison to those of the World War II which arose out of the failures of WWI to resolve the issues which gave rise to it. The two world wars together would equal the Civil War in casualties.
Since WWII, about 160,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in places as far flung as Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. But while WWI ostensibly was fought to end wars and WWII to save the world from totalitarianism, the goals of wars since the middle of the 20th CE have been far less clear.
These latter day wars were initially sold to the American public under urgent imperatives of halting a red menace, protecting nations from toppling like dominos to godless communism. More recently wars have been sold as “defending freedom” against a vague foe of terrorism. While the actual threat to American interests from these highly caricaturized bogeymen has been at best mixed, what is clear in retrospect is that the global corporations who benefited from these wars, particularly petrochemical and military-industrial interests, appear to have set the agenda for American foreign policy.
It has proven to be an agenda paid for with the blood of working class American kids. They were dispatched into harm’s way by power holders whose own children have been exempted from an innocuous sounding “volunteer” army whose “volunteers” were actually driven there by the desperation of a poverty draft. Indeed, the vast majority of those authorizing these ongoing invasions and occupations themselves found ways to dodge the mandatory draft that the children of the working and middle classes faced during the Vietnam era of the 1960s and 70s.
It’s always easy to send someone else’s kid to war.
Roots of a Commemoration
It is unclear where the practice of honoring the war dead on a particular day began. Decoration of the graves of war dead predates the Civil War but there is no indication it ever occurred in a routine practice until that time.
One of the more interesting roots of Memorial Day arose during Reconstruction in Charleston, SC. David Bight of the Teaching A People’s History program provides this account:
After a long siege…the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February….
1865 view of the Union soldiers graves at Washington Racecourse. Library of Congress.
Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events…took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freed people.”
The first annual commemorations of the Civil War dead were observed at various times of the year in numerous cities in the north and the south many of which lay claim to being the birthplace of this rite of remembrance. Initially celebrated as holidays by the various states, by the turn of the 20th CE, Memorial Day was celebrated nation-wide on May 30. After WWI, the commemoration of war dead was extended to all who had died in the armed services of the United States and in 1971 Congress made the last Monday of May a national holiday on which Memorial Day was to be celebrated.
The Bivouac of the Dead
Historically there have been two major means of socially constructing American wars. The first tends to construct war in the abstract, not only minimizing the suffering of those required to fight it but often erasing from recorded memory those impacted by it:
- The soldiers themselves, whose flag draped coffins returning from battlefields across the globe today are rarely permitted to be photographed by news media;
- The families on both sides of the war who are left behind, anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones, some never to know their fate;
- The general populace of conflicted nations, their elderly and children alike, now targets of hostilities which over the last century inexorably shifted from battlefields intentionally located outside settlements to the cities themselves. The total wars of the 20th CE would now target homes, businesses and places of worship, stripping their slain inhabitants of their very humanity in accounting for their deaths as “collateral damage.”
In such constructions, spun by governments and willingly propagated up by a media more often serving as cheerleader than critic, war is always self-evident, obvious, the only possible choice. It is inevitably spun in heroic terms as serving national interests if not larger than life heroic concerns for democracy and freedom themselves.
The run-up to war is marked by excitement, effusive displays of militarism conflated with nationalism such that any opposition to war is routinely seen as unpatriotic. Appeals to the manhood of the young human grist for the mill of death are relentless and highly effective. Erich Remarque offers a classic depiction of this seductive call of Thanatos in All Quiet on the Western Front, seen here, in which a teacher entrusted with the well-being of young students actually serves as the recruitment agent for the armed forces.
Ironically, it is always the writers, the artists, the poets, the song writers and film makers who offer the alternative constructions of war, visions which largely serve to deconstruct the first. They tell the stories of death and suffering, stripping away facades of nobility, honor and heroism. In a society heavily invested in death-denial and more than willing to buy into guilt assuaging self-deceptions, these are the bold truth tellers. They do not worship at the altar of Thanatos; they lament war and mourn its sacrificial victims.
At the Veterans’ Administration website which provides a limited history of Memorial Day, a poem by a former Confederate officer in the Civil War reflects the somber tone of Memorial Day remembrances of the fallen:
THE MUFFLED drum’s sad roll has beat, The soldier’s last tattoo; No more on Life’s parade shall meet. That brave and fallen few. On Fame’s eternal camping-ground Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead. – Theodore O’Hara, “Bivouac Of The Dead”
The poet struggles here to afford dignity to the victims of tribal egos gone mad. It is an unenviable burden that the witness to carnage must shoulder, returning with a glimmer of truth that those who have not been to war desperately seek to avoid. At the end of Remarque’s work, his depiction of Paul, the former student returning from the Western Front, seen here, is a classic vision of the prophet bearing bad news and the proclivity of his seduced countrymen to shoot the messenger rather than countenance his message.
But not all will return.
Wilfred Owens poem “Dulce et Decorum” speaks the horror of seeing one’s comrades die before them, his own in the gas-filled trenches of Europe during WWI. Owens, like Remarque’s Paul, wants nothing to do with the heroic spin that accompanied him and others into the hell holes of war, concluding his classic poem with these words:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Lat. It is sweet and right to die for one’s country)
A half century later, veteran and poet Randall Jarrell would refrain this sentiment with his WWII era poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
It is artists like Maya Lin who have provided Americans the sanctuaries we need to pour out our grief. Stark, angular grey granite walls bearing the inscribed names of the dead which glint in sunlight compose her Vietnam Memorial.
I have always felt it my duty to come to this memorial, bearing the names of so many of my peers who disappeared into the jungles of Southeast Asia, whenever I visit our nation’s capital. As I survey the impromptu shrines of dog tags, handwritten notes and flowers those paying their respects have left, there has never been a time when I did not find myself overcome with grief.
And I have never wept alone.
It is songwriters such as Paul Hardcastle whose hit song “19” was released on the eve of Memorial Day in 1985, who remind us that of those who did come home, many returned very different human beings from those to whom we said goodbye at the train stations. Beginning with the observation that “In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26, In Vietnam he was 19,” Hardcastle notes that
Many vets complain of alienation, rage, or guilt
Some succumb to suicidal thoughts
Eight to Ten years after coming home almost eight-hundred-thousand men are
still fighting the Vietnam War
Requiem for a Soldier
In thinking about Memorial Day, a day to remember the dead and the walking wounded, a day of mourning, to feel the sorrow for young lives ended prematurely, I have found one tribute to the fallen which rises above the others.
In 2001 HBO created a 10 episode miniseries about a parachute regiment during WWII entitled “Band of Brothers,” taking its title from a speech by Henry V to his troops in Shakespeare’s play with the same name. What makes this series remarkable is its very real depiction of the soldiers therein. They face dangers, endure horrendous conditions, all the while exhibiting the loyalty to their comrades, a true brotherhood that so many will miss upon making the return home.
But it is the care with which directors Stephen Spielburg and Tom Hanks craft their humanity that makes them real. There is no militaristic flag waving accompanied by smarmy country songs. There are no parades or fireworks. These soldiers suffer. They weep. They laugh. They celebrate. They mourn. They are not larger than life.
They are very human.
Each episode in the series opens with a film montage of these very human beings accompanied by one of the most haunting songs I have ever heard. Entitled Amici Forever, Requiem for a Soldier, it is dignified, poignant, a fitting tribute to the dead and to those who survived.
This Memorial Day, take the two and a half minutes to watch this beautiful homage to the fallen soldiers we are called to remember this weekend. For just a moment, forget the sales, the beach, the barbeque. Just be present for a moment with the suffering, the dying, those who survived and all those they left behind.
Be present with them.
Weep with them.
Weep with me.
And then offer your prayer for lives so abruptly ended and lives that wars inevitably change forever.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8