Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day: To Absent Companions

Today is Memorial Day, honoring the military fallen in the wars of the United States.   There is good evidence that it was begun during the Civil War (the War Between the States) when women of the Confederacy decorated the graves of their soldiers. The beginning of the tradition is officially ‘disputed’, even more so, as I have seen during my lifetime, when it has become more and more politically correct to denigrate or simply ignore the culture of the South and the Confederate States.  Several cities and towns, both North and South, lay claim to be the original site of the observances, but Waterloo, New York was chosen by Congress as the official site in the designation of Memorial Day as a federal holiday in 1966.  Far prior to that though, in 1868, the first proclamation of the day came from General John Logan, then commander of the Grand Army of the Republic:
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.  In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit. ... If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us. Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.
The sense of the nation growing together gained momentum during the Spanish-American War, symbolised recently by the scene in the movie Rough Riders (by John Milius), when US troops are passing through the South (still suffering from the after-effects of Reconstruction) enroute to their embarkation ports in Florida.  A young boy asks his grandfather, "Are those Yankees, Grandpa?"  The old man answers, "No, boy.  Those are Americans."

The observance grew greatly in importance and number after World War I, when it began to include the fallen of all of America’s wars, though the South in many cases continued its tradition of honouring its Confederate graves distinctly.  My brother remembers stopping by a family reunion on that day in our grandmother’s home town of Marlin, Texas, and seeing the graves in the old town cemetery marked by Union and Confederate flags, with the Confederate flags in more abundance.

With World War I, we have also adopted a poem of that war, In Flanders Fields, written by the Canadian Lt Col John McCrae before he died in the cause of that war in 1918.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae was qualified as an officer of the artillery (from his service during the Second Boer War) in addition to being a highly qualified surgeon.  As such, he was a field surgeon with the Canadian artillery at the front until ordered away to set up a general hospital.  His disappointment was voiced to a friend: “'Allinson, all the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.”

I am resigned to hear each year about this ‘holiday’, in the sense that it’s a day off for celebrations such as a day at the beach, or a backyard barbeque and party.  I hear greetings of ‘Happy Memorial Day!’ or a comment of gratitude to me like ‘Thank you for your service’.  While the people who greet me thus are typically quite sincere in their feelings, nevertheless it would be nice if they could understand the true meaning of the day.  I believe that it is slowly getting better, due no doubt to the large number of veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in this long crusade (yes, that’s what it is) against the Islamic Supremacists. 

So if you thank me for my service on Memorial Day – well, I appreciate your greeting if it is well-meant, but today is not for me or other veterans.  That would be Veterans Day.  I accept the sentiment not for me but in honour of the service of my family, both before and after me, and in particular for two of my sons serving with the Army (101st Airborne Division & 75th Rangers).  But today is for those who gave their lives in defense of our country.

The eloquent Walter Russell Mead brings us up to date on the subject:

But on this Memorial Day it is not enough to remember, and give thanks, that Osama’s dream died before he did and that the terror movement has been gravely wounded at its heart.
Because the dream didn’t just die.
It was killed.
And it was killed by coalition forces.  They killed it by fighting harder and smarter than the enemy and they killed it by winning trust and building bridges better than the enemy.  They did it because they were better, more honorable warriors and better, more honorable partners for peace.  Mostly American and mostly Christian, the coalition forcers were more compassionate, more just, more protective of the poor and more respectful of Arab women than the crazed thugs who thought setting off bombs in the market was fulfilling God’s will.
We must continue to honor and thank the Arab allies and tribal leaders who made the choice for America in a dark and a difficult time.  But especially on this Memorial Day we must honor and remember the American heroes who by their lives and by their deaths brought victory out of defeat, understanding out of hatred and gave both Muslims and non-Muslims a chance to get this whole thing right.
The story of America’s victory over terror in Mesopotamia needs to be told.  In justice to those who sacrificed so much, and for the sake of those who may have to face similar dangers in the future, somebody needs to tell the real story of how, against all odds and in the face of unremitting skepticism and defeatism at home, our armed forces built a foundation for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.
All wars are tragic; some are also victorious.  The tragedies of Iraq are real and well known.  The victory is equally real — but the politically fastidious don’t want to look.  The minimum we owe our lost and wounded warriors is to tell the story of what they so gloriously achieved.
On ths Memorial Day, a truth needs to be told.
We have not yet done justice to our dead. 
So then, on this day I hold a day of remembrance, for all those fallen and in particular for Absent Companions.  We cannot be a Land of the Free unless we are also the Home of the Brave.

Victor Davis Hanson explains it well as always:
The list of American wars, interventions, and campaigns, past and present, is endless — a source of serial political acrimony here at home over the human and financial cost and wisdom of spending American lives to better others. Sometimes we feel we are not good when we are not perfect, whether trying to stop a Stalinist North Vietnamese takeover of the south, or failing to secure Iraq before 2008. But the common story remains the same: For nearly a century, the American soldier has often been the last, indeed the only, impediment to butchery, enslavement, and autocracy.
It was the custom of great leaders from Pericles to Napoleon to declare that the graves of their soldiers in far-off foreign soils were testaments to their nations’ grandeur, power, and reach; yet our white crosses in American cemeteries from Epinal, St.-Mihiel, and Normandy to Manila, Tunisia, and Sicily are tributes to American military courage and competency — and a willingness to see an end to wars that brutal men started and might have won had our youth not crossed the seas.
We should remember all that in the present age of cynicism and nihilism, recalling that nothing has really changed, as some Americans this Memorial Day seek to foster something better than Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and Moammar Qaddafi. Behind every American soldier, dozens of their countrymen tonight sleep soundly — and hundreds more in their shadow abroad will wake up alive and safe.
Update: Mark Helprin’s article ‘Memorial Day Beyond Stone and Steel’ in the Wall Street Journal of this Memorial weekend sets a tone similar to my notes above.  Unfortunately, the full article is for subscribers only, but these few quotes should encourage you to look it up, if you are able to find a copy (perhaps the library?).
Largely out of touch with the tragedies of war, America sends often principled and self-sacrificing volunteers to suffer and die in our behalf.  We call them heroes and salve our consciences in a froth of words.  Or, among those of us who will fight only if the Taliban comes to Beverly Hills, and probably not even then, congratulate ourselves for being intelligent enough not to volunteer.  Then we go about our business, either satisfied that we are appropriately patriotic or assuming that as we face only imagined dangers we need not lose sleep over the unfortunates who pursue them, often unto death, leaving behind broken and grieving families who suffer a pain that will never go away. . . .

We will fail to assure the national security . . . if we make the armed forces a laboratory for the hobby horses of progressivism; and if our political leaders, very few of whom have studied much less known war, commit our troops promiscuously, in service to tangential ideology, with scatter-brained objectives, and without what Winston Churchill called the “continued stress of soul” necessary for proper decision.

Only the dead have seen the end of war, which will not be eradicated but must be suppressed, managed, and minimized.  This cannot be accomplished in the absence of resolution, vigilance, and sacrifice.  These are the only fitting memorials to the long ranks of the dead, and what we owe to those who in the absence of our care and devotion are sure to join them.
Well do I remember the many impassioned statements in those dark years by leading politicians and pundits that the [Iraq] war was lost, lost, irretrievably lost.  It was over now, they wailed on television and in print.  The Iraqi government was a farce and could never take hold.  These clowns made Diem look like Charles de Gaulle.  We had no option but to get out as quickly as possible.  On and on rolled the great choir of doom, smarter than the rest of us, deeper thinkers, capable of holding more complex thoughts behind their furrowed brows.
Now they have glibly moved on to other subjects; the mostly complicit media is helping us all to forget just how wrong — and how intolerant and moralistic — so many people were about the ‘lost’ war.
While the politicians washed their hands and hung up white flags, and while the press lords gibbered and foamed, the brass kept their heads and the troops stood tall.  And gradually, a miracle happened.  America started winning the war. . . .
Update:  The Veterans Administration has an official page on the origins of Memorial Day.  (H/T to Team Ruptured Duck)

Update: My 2012 post on the same subject, and the one for 2013.

And now 2014.

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