Each Memorial Day, you hear a lot of earnest and sometimes angry talk about the debasement of this holiday into a mere long weekend devoted to beaches, barbecues, sporting events, and celebration of the onset of of the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. (Indeed, at church yesterday I listened to a sermon dedicated to this very theme).
But if you listen carefully to these complaints, there are two very distinct ideas about the “true meaning” of Memorial Day that emerge (try googling “true meaning Memorial Day” and you’ll see what I mean). The first is about remembering the dead, most generally, and more specifically recalling in somber detail the sacrifices of those who died in the service of our country. The second is about honoring that service by exalting its purpose, making Memorial Day a patriotic holiday dedicated to retroactive and prospective dedication of Americans to the justice and selflessness associated with this country at war.
This second idea is inevitably political, particularly at a time when young Americans are being exposed to death each day in a very unpopular “war of choice.” Sure, there are some antiwar folk who encourage an examination of patriotic ideology on days like Memorial Day in the hopes that America will “live up” to the principles it proclaims. But far more common are conservative excoriations of those who out of malice or ignorance fail to endorse the unique and universal benevolence that characterizes each resort to arms by the United States.
Consider this excerpt from a long Memorial Day piece at National Review Online by Mackubin Thomas Owens:
[W]hile the individual soldier may focus on the particulars of combat, Memorial Day permits us to enlarge the individual soldier’s view, giving broader meaning to the sacrifice that was accepted of some but offered by all, not only acknowledging and remembering the sacrifice, but validating it.
In the history of the world, many good soldiers have died bravely and honorably for bad or unjust causes. Americans are fortunate in that we have been given a way of avoiding this situation by linking the sacrifice of our soldiers to the meaning of the nation. At the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln fleshed out the understanding of what he called in his First Inaugural Address, the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address gives universal meaning to the particular deaths that occurred on that hallowed ground, thus allowing us to understand Memorial Day in the light of the Fourth of July, to comprehend the honorable end of the soldiers in the light of the glorious beginning and purpose of the nation. The deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg, of those who died during the Civil War as a whole, and indeed of those who have fallen in all the wars of America, are validated by reference to the nation and its founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
According to this point of view, you can’t honor fallen servicemen and servicewomen without honoring the specific and general causes for which they were thrown into battle. And it’s no surprise that those who maintain this point of view also believe that you can’t “support the troops” in Iraq without supporting the justice and necessity of the war itself, and its past and present conduct by the current administration in Washington.
This is an understandable if very dangerous emotion. No one is happy to acknowledge the possibility that they, or their loved ones, or for that matter, their fellow-citizens, are walking in the valley of the shadow of death “in vain” (as Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address) or “for a mistake” (as John Kerry put it in his Senate testimony for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War). Owens is a Vietnam Vet, and he makes plain his opinion that the dishonoring of American war dead began with the anti-Vietnam War movement:
The posture Americans took toward Memorial Day started to go awry with Vietnam. The press, if not the American people, began to treat soldiers as moral monsters, victims, or both. The “dysfunctional Vietnam vet” became a staple of popular culture. Despite the fact that atrocities were rare, My Lai came to symbolize the entire war. Thanks to the press’s preoccupation with the anomaly of My Lai, Lt. William Calley became the poster boy for Vietnam. The honorable and heroic performance of the vast majority of those who served in Vietnam went largely unrecognized.
Owens’ citation of My Lai and Calley is interesting. I don’t know how Calley was regarded by his former brothers-in-arms fighting in Vietnam, but in Georgia, where I was growing up at the time, he was turned into a hero–a “poster boy for Vietnam” among war supporters. “Ralleys for Calley” were held all over the state (and the country). After Richard Nixon commuted Calley’s sentence for violating military law, he adopted Columbus, Georgia, as his new home town, and was soon appearing in ads for a car dealer. Sure, some Calley supporters considered him a “scapegoat” who was being punished for the sins of higher-ups (the ex post facto rationalization that Jimmy Carter offered for his pronouncement encouraging Georgians to turn on their headlights for a day to show support for the convicted mass murderer). But what I heard most often was a very different conviction: Calley was an honorable soldier doing the dirty work that most Americans didn’t want to think about, in a war against a savage opponent who deployed women and children to kill GIs–a war that all Americans were honor-bound to support in its most horrifying moments. That was certainly the sentiment conveyed by the 1971 pop song “The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley,” which won vast radio airplay and sold 300,000 copies in the three days after its release:
While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street
While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat
While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat–
as we go marching on….
When I reach my final campground in that land beyond the sun
And the great commander asks me, “Did you fight or did you run?”
I’ll stand both straight and tall stripped of medals, rank and gun
And this is what I’ll say:
Sir, I followed all my orders and I did the best I could
It’s hard to judge the enemy and hard to tell the good
Yet there’s not a man among us would not have understood
With all due respect to Mackubin Thomas Owens, this is the moral hazard invited by those who insist all of America’s wars have been sacrifices on the altar of freedom and democracy, or who treat dissenters against war policies as unpatriotic. Was “the press” really more responsible for the mixed legacy of the Vietnam War than an administration that cynically kept the war going for political purposes years after Richard Nixon had privately admitted it was lost?
And in truth, the necessity of honoring the troops while denying the perfect justice of The Cause didn’t begin with Vietnam. As Owen notes at the very beginning of his article, Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) began as a partisan commemoration in the northern states of the sacrifices made by Union troops in suppression of “the late rebellion” (i.e., the Confederacy). That’s why a parallel system of Confederate Memorial Days quickly developed in the South, which, following Owens’ own logic, were devoted more to celebration of the Lost Cause than to the individual sacrifices of Confederate troops and their families. Well into my own lifetime, Confederal Memorial Day was the occasion for an annual exercise in regional defiance, self-pity and rationalization, which whitewashed “the rebellion” as being “about” states rights, the agrarian lifestyle, neoclassical culture, the Cavalier tradition–indeed, everything other than human bondage and the refusal to even coexist with Americans who wanted to prevent its extension to new territories.
So put me firmly in that first camp of those who feel strongly that Memorial Day should be a day of remembrance devoted to respectful contemplation of sacrifice in national service, not a political holiday aimed at national self-congratulation or the vengeful settling of scores with those who fail to “support the troops” by supporting the policies of men like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. In this era of an all-volunteer military and of “preemptive wars” that most of us follow on television, it is very important for those of us who haven’t risked death or injury to take some time to understand the horrors of war–the fear not just of death but of leaving families behind to fend for themselves, the randomness of the Grim Reaper in choosing his victims in modern warfare, and the courage of troops who not only defy death, but the temptations of indiscriminate total war to which William Calley (for whatever reason) succumbed. I do agree with Owens that all Americans should acknowledge and take pride in the distinguished traditions that have led many millions of Americans in uniform to increase their own odds of death or defeat by observing limitations on the scope of violence in war. But that’s all the more reason that we should resist the idea of extending to warmakers the Memorial Day remembrances we owe to warriors.
For our much-blessed country, war is occasionally necessary, sometimes preferable to the alternatives, but usually represents a failure of statecraft and the structures of peace, stability and collective security that American men and women in uniform have in recent decades defended as much as the homeland itself. On Memorial Day, we should be reminded not only of the wealth and leisure and safety we owe to those who served, but also of the terrible price that some Americans have paid for our occasional failure to give our brave troops the leadership they deserve.