Reflections on Memorial Day 2021

Newport, Rhode Island, the town I have called home for the last 34 years, has suffered economically due to the lockdowns that were imposed in response to COVID-19. A beach and resort town, Newport is heavily dependent on tourism and the hospitality industry. During the lockdown, once-bustling establishments went out of business and countless workers lost their jobs. The “lost summer” of 2020 was devastating to Newport’s economy and workers.

Things are looking up now. Many of the restrictions are being lifted. Bars and restaurants are returning to full capacity. Over the last two weeks, energy and optimism are palpable among those who sense a return to normality. That is a good thing but it may well contribute to an old problem that we perennially face this last weekend in May: obscuring the meaning of Memorial Day.

In 1998, I was invited to deliver a Memorial Day address at Newport City Hall. We faced a similar problem then. The country was at peace. The Soviet Union had collapsed, our last conflict, the First Gulf War, had been something of a cake walk, contributing to the belief that we had reached the “end of history” and the final triumph of liberal democracy over its ideological competitors. And our technological prowess in the First Gulf War convinced many who ought to have known better that large-scale war was a thing of the past. September 11 and the subsequent wars still lay in the future.

As a result, many Americans had come to see Memorial Day as nothing more than another three-day weekend, albeit the beginning of the summer season, a mere excuse for a weekend cook-out, which had obscured even the vestiges of its meaning. In my address, I sought to restore the true meaning of the holiday, as a solemn time, serving both as catharsis for those who fought and survived, and to ensure that those who followed would not forget the sacrifice of those who died that the American Republic and the principles that sustain it, might live.

I contended that Americans had forgotten how to honor their war heroes and to remember their war dead. As Bing West observed several years ago in his remarkable book about Fallujah, No True Glory, stories of soldierly courage deserve “to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deed will die.”

I noted that what we now call Memorial Day was established on May 5, 1868 by Grand Army of the Republic General John A. Logan’s “General Order No. 11.” The order reads in part: “The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s order served to ratify a practice that was already widespread, both in the North and the South, in the years immediately following the Civil War.

I recounted stories of heroism from the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam. I told of my correspondence with the anguished mother of one of my Marines who was killed in Vietnam in May 1969. I asked, rhetorically, why men such as the Marines under my command were willing to fight and die?

I observed that in his book, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, Glen Gray provided one answer: 

Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.

My own experience validated Gray’s observation about what men think about in the heat of combat: the impact of our actions on our comrades always looms large in our minds. (For those who have not been to war and want to get a sense of the bond that binds comrades both in life and death, I always recommend the film, “Saving Private Ryan” and the two HBO series, “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” as well as the HBO film, “Taking Chance.”) 

But then I added something that stirred some controversy.

I said that although 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 by reference to America’s founding principles. I argued that as Pericles, in his Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War, elevated the Athenian dead by praising the excellence of Athens, Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, elevated the Union dead by praising that for which they fought.

He did so by giving 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.

But some objected that linking Memorial Day and Independence Day glorifies war in general and America’s wars in particular. For instance, some writers at Antiwar.com claimed that I was “sentimentalizing” American war deaths and justifying America’s unjust wars. The soldiers who have died in America’s wars joined the service for many reasons. But all were motivated at least to a certain degree by a sense of duty and honor arising from patriotism. At a time when patriotism is under attack by such forces as critical race theory and the claim that our founding was unjust, the explicit denigration of patriotism is a serious mistake. There are things worth fighting and dying for. A country founded on decent principles—something that no other country shares—is one such cause.

And by attempting to link the deaths of soldiers to the principles of America’s founding, was I not trivializing individual loss and the end of youth and joy? How can the loved ones of a fallen soldier ever recover from such a loss? The inconsolable pain and grief of the mother of a fallen Marine with whom I corresponded put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Epitaphs of the War, verse IV, “An Only Son”: “I have slain none but my mother, She (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.” Kipling, too, lost his only son in World War I.

But as Oliver Wendell Holmes said in his Memorial Day address of 1884:

[G]rief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death—of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope and will.

I am happy this weekend to see my town open up and return to normal. I look forward to seeing the tourists return to the beaches as they open up and as crowds return to the bars and restaurants. Have the burger. Enjoy the barbeque. But also take some time to watch “Taking Chance” to remember how to honor those who died to make your weekend possible.

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