Memorial Day has a long history with a number of cultural roots. The practice of cleaning and decorating family gravesites is as old as the American republic. Veneration of ancestors is part and parcel of the human experience.
This Memorial Day, let us look a little more closely at this commemoration.
Healing After a Brutal Civil War
A designated day to remember those who died in wars appears to have its beginnings in the period after the U.S. Civil War. Both Northern and Southern families and friends of soldiers killed in that bitter internecine struggle had begun to honor their lost loved ones before that war had even ended. At a very basic level, it was an attempt to begin healing a nation’s broken heart.
Originally called Decoration Day, this was a day set aside to remember the loss of life, the human sacrifice that the bloodthirsty God of War always demands. The first national commemoration of Memorial Day was held in Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried.
One of the roots of this day comes from a particularly moving commemoration in Charleston, SC. During the war a former racetrack and adjoining club for Charleston’s elite had been used as a make-shift prison for captured Union soldiers. More than 260 died from disease and exposure while being held in the racetrack’s open-air infield. Their bodies were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.
On May 1, 1865, recently freed African Americans held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers. Accompanied by some white missionaries, these former slaves staged a parade around the racetrack. Three thousand black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.
Before the day was over, the remains of the Union soldiers would be provided proper burial befitting heroes.
For people whose literal freedom was paid for by the blood of these men, it was an act of gratitude for selfless service of the common good that should always be a part of a genuine Memorial Day remembrance. But that it is not all that must be remembered on Memorial Day.
The Costs of War
The arts produced during every war era have long included a genre bewailing the death-dealing aspects of war. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel that critiqued the power of nationalist ideology to manipulate the young and the naïve with deadly results, was ultimately banned in Hitler’s Third Reich. The nihilistic vision of Francis Ford Copola’s Apocalypse Now and the heartrending narrative of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket powerfully spoke to the mindlessness of war.
As is often the case, the artist is the prophet of the modern age, holding up the mirror to society and daring us to look carefully at who we have become. More often than not we are more inclined to stone the prophet than to engage in any kind of self-reflexivity.
In the period after World War II, the two juggernauts of self-serving empire who had survived the conflagration that swallowed up most of Europe confronted one another in a “cold war.” That endless war envisioned by George Orwell’s 1984 would rob countless young men and women of their families, their homes, their dreams and ultimately their lives in places with names like Inchon, Korea, Da Nang, Vietnam, and the tiny island nation of Grenada in the Caribbean.
It would be a four-decade long period marked by fears of Mutually Assured Destruction from ever more effective nuclear bombs, weapons that would come within minutes of being deployed in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as we children in Florida trembled under our desks. It would be a period of mass hysteria and moral panics that would locate a communist behind every tree from the films that Hollywood produced to the podiums from which academics even slightly critical of US imperial policy questioned it.
Countless lives would be ruined in the mindlessness which resulted.
The ongoing war would come at an enormous cost to this country in the lives of its children. That toll would be extracted primarily from the working poor who could not avoid the draft and, once that was ended due to middle class white resistance, were sold a bill of goods that the armed forces was their only out from the hopelessness of their declining rural towns and inner city ghettos.
It would also come at an enormous cost to the "general welfare" of the country itself. While Lyndon Johnson promised the American people guns and butter, in fact the guns quickly ran away with the butter. Today Trumpland touts a military that is the largest in the world, spending more than its next seven closest competitors combined. While it has made the dealers of the weapons of war like Blackwater extremely wealthy, that spending has come at a major cost to vulnerable people ranging from the mentally ill on our streets to the very veterans who fought these wars returning home with life changing damages to body and soul. All these needs have consistently been underestimated, underfunded and ignored.
Finally, it would come at an enormous cost to the very soul of America. Armed conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq would be sold to the public with bald faced lies. In 1917 U.S. Senator Hiram W. Johnson (R - California), a staunch isolationist who opposed Woodrow Wilson’s deceptive selling of World War I to the American public, observed:
"The first casualty when war comes is truth."
Johnson would continue to serve California in the Senate through two world wars. There is no small amount of irony that his death occurred on August 6, 1945, the same day the U.S. rained down hell fire on a non-military civilian site named Hiroshima. It was an act of genocide sold to the public with deceptive assertions of unavoidable necessity.
Any proposal that must be sold by means of active deception to those whose buy-in is necessary for its success reveals itself from the very beginning as a proposal that is ethically – if not pragmatically – questionable. The selling of war through manipulation of insecure masculine identities (“Be all that you can be?”) and the use of falsehoods repeated enough times by mass media to attain a façade of facticity suggests questionable motives and reasoning by definition.
“To Promote the General Welfare…”
It is highly questionable as to whether any of the conflicts in which soldiers have been employed since World War II have truly served the national interest. Clearly some specialized interests have benefited, corporations who profit enormously from these wars, private interests advanced by public money, manpower and legal authority. But what about the *common* good, “the general welfare” that our Preamble insists must be the interest served by our national government?
As retiring President Dwight Eisenhower warned us nearly 70 years ago:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist….We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.”
Indeed, the very soul of our country is at stake when wars designed to enrich the corporate elite from war profiteers to agribusiness and fossil fuels global corporations can be declared without Congressional approval, waged with public moneys and fought with the lives of the desperate seeking escape through a poverty draft. This is a dishonest, unethical and constitutionally suspect practice. It merits public challenge, resistance and change.
But first we must awake from our slumbers.
This Memorial Day seven active conflicts employ our brothers and sisters around the globe, the last sputtering gasps of an empire in decline stretched to the breaking point. At home, it will be marked by televised dangerous auto races sponsored by a dying fossil fuels industry and a beer industry only too happy to help deaden the pain. It will be marked by a constant pounding of consumerist advertising that will attempt to convince us that our lives cannot possibly be satisfying without a new automobile, refrigerator or set of clothes. Memorial Day will mark the end of the school year and the start of the summer season, time for the elites – whose children rarely go off to war except as officers - to switch to white clothing.
All of these weapons of mass distraction will be employed to keep the public from thinking too long about what Memorial Day really means. And they will undoubtedly be more than a little effective. But when we fail to give Thanatos, the God of Death, his due, he always finds ways to get our attention.
Distinguishing the Soldiers from the Wars
My late Father spent two years of his life helping the U.S. Navy ship home the bodies of soldiers who had met premature deaths in places with names like Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. His was one of the ships that survived an attack by a kamikaze pilot. That story always made my heart stop for a moment when he told it. He now rests in the National Cemetery in Bushnell with my Mother and among the many men and women with whom he served in WWII.
My Father’s service and their service is laudable. The dignity of the fallen must always be respected. The tragedies of their untimely ends must be mourned. That must never be in question.
While the persons of the fallen can never be seen in any way other than with honor, deep respect and gratitude, the professed purposes for which they were slaughtered must always be questioned by people of good faith. We must resist the ever-present uncritical thinking propagated by our corporate mass media which would see any criticism of war as somehow an assault on the dignity of the fallen. These are always distinguishable concerns.
This Memorial Day let us avoid the trap of equating the deaths of our brothers and sisters with some amorphous, fetishized concept of “freedom.” Many, perhaps most, who died in these wars did not feel they had any other choice. And many, perhaps most notably soldiers of color and LBGTQ soldiers, returned to an America not willing to recognize their freedom.
At the very most, their role in insuring our survival as a nation-state has freed us to continue pursuing our stated ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” To get a sense of how far from that ideal we still are, ask any person of color, immigrant, Muslim or LBGTQ person today.
It is important to take Memorial Day seriously, to look past the mindless consumerism that pounds us from every angle to distract us, the dishonest conflation of soldiers with the wars they are asked to fight and the smarmy sentimental pap that passes for patriotic expression. Our brothers and sisters did not die to free us up to simply shop. And they are not honored in any kind of remembrance that does not prompt us to ask some very hard questions:
· Why did they have to die?
· To what ends?
· To whose benefit and at whose expense?
· And what can we learn from their sacrifices – both chosen and imposed - that will prevent the unnecessary wasting of lives – military and civilian - today?
Happy Memorial Day.
If in some smothering dreams,
you too could pace
Behind the wagon
that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes
writhing in his face,
His hanging face,
like a devil’s sick of sin;
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.
-Wilfred Owens, Duce et Decorum Est (1917)
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.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
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 Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2019
So well said, thank you Harry.
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