Why We Remember Memorial Day

For visitors from outside the United States, the US celebrates today as Memorial Day.

The following is a re-post of 2017 post of the same title.

From historian Victor Davis Hanson via The Wall Street Journal:

A few years ago I was honored to serve briefly on the American Battle Monuments Commission, whose chief duty is the custodianship of American military cemeteries abroad. Over 125,000 American dead now rest in these serene parks, some 26 in 16 countries. Another 94,000 of the missing are commemorated by name only. The graves (mostly fatalities of World Wars I and II) are as perfectly maintained all over the world, from Tunisia to the Philippines, as those of the war dead who rest in the well-manicured acres of the U.S. military cemetery in Arlington, Va.

A world away from the white marble statuary, crosses, Stars of David, noble inscriptions and manicured greenery of these cemeteries is the stark 246-foot wall of polished igneous rock of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the mall in Washington. On its black surfaces are etched 58,307 names of American dead in Vietnam. They are listed in the chronological order of their deaths. The melancholy wall, birthed in bitter controversy at its inception in 1982, emphasizes tragedy more than American confidence in its transcendent values—as if to warn the nation that the agenda of Vietnam was not quite that of 1917 and 1941.

The Vietnam War may have reopened with special starkness the question of how to honor our fallen dead, but it is hardly a new problem in our history. As today’s disputes over the legacy of the Civil War and the Confederacy suggest, it has never been enough just to lament the sacrifice and carnage of our wars, whether successful or failed. We feel the need to honor the war dead but also to make distinctions among them, elevating those who served noble causes while passing judgment on their foes. This is not an exclusively American impulse. It has deep roots in the larger Western tradition of commemoration, and no era—certainly not our own—has managed to escape its complexities and paradoxes.

Our own idea of Memorial Day originated as “Decoration Day,” the post-Civil War tradition, in both the North and the South, of decorating the graves of the war dead. That rite grew out of the shock and trauma of the Civil War. In the conflict’s first major battle at Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) there were likely more American casualties (about 24,000 dead, wounded and missing on both sides) than in all the nation’s prior wars combined since its founding.

The shared ordeal of the Civil War, with some 650,000 fatalities, would eventually demand a unified national day of remembrance. Memorial Day began as an effort to square the circle in honoring America’s dead—without privileging the victors or their cause. The approach of the summer holidays seemed the most appropriate moment to heal our civic wounds. The timing suggested renewal and continuity, whereas an autumn or winter date might add unduly to the grim lamentation of the day.

. . . .

The Western tradition of commemoration also includes a unique idea of individual moral exemption. As first articulated by Pericles, we overlook any defects of character of the war dead, attributing to one brief moment of ultimate sacrifice the power to wash away all prior moral faults.

A noble death serves, in the words of Pericles, as “a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.” The great playwright Aeschylus wanted his epitaph to read only that he was a veteran of the Athenian victory at Marathon—a battle where his brother fell.

These themes still resonate in our own habits and rites. This Memorial Day the flags on graves in American cemeteries set the dead apart, in a special moral category that discourages any discussion of the bothersome details of their short lives.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

3 thoughts on “Why We Remember Memorial Day”

  1. Sadly, it may well be soon that the cry against those fallen who chose the ‘wrong side’ will lead the “Sure that I’M right” group to, first deliberately snub long-buried Confederate soldiers, then to disinter them from Federal graves.
    Then to have their bones flung into a steaming pile – of what, I truly fear.
    It’s already started with the Confederate memorials, and the men who are buried underneath them. Next stop, the cemeteries.
    The ideas of healing and respect for the dead are long gone.

    • I can’t and don’t agree with this. It fails to distinguish between “graves” and “statuary/hero worship” in a way that anyone with marginal familiarity with the history of military personalities in the US would reject as unfounded in fact. After all, West Point still has that damned statue of MacArthur at the entrance, which is inappropriate not (just) because of Korea, but because of the Bonus Riots.

      On the other hand, it sure beats giving death notices. Which, as a commanding officer, I did more than once.

      So I’m… perturbed (not rising to “being offended”)… by this sort of screed. Freedom of speech even for goofiness is part of that Constitution I swore to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that doesn’t mean I have to like it. And neither does anyone else, which is really my point (and why I said “don’t agree”).

      N.B. I did a tour as a [Major-] Command Historian; I know more than a little bit about the shenanigans and difficulties with “naming things after the prominent.”

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