Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Memorial Day

So my friend, Katherine, and I had this conversation late Memorial Day about who it's appropriate to honor on the last Monday in May vs. who to honor on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. And about how and why to honor on both occasions without celebrating war. The former isn't a big deal; the latter is.

"I love war," this 9-year-old told me a couple weeks ago as we stood in a display of military regalia, his eyes devouring bits and pieces of World War II-era gear.

Look it up; the basic answers are straightforward. Memorial Day was set aside to encourage remembrance of men and women who died while serving in U.S. armed forces; Veterans Day, to acknowledge all who have served in the military, especially those still living.

Both have evolved since Memorial Day was established as Decoration Day to honor the fallen, both North and South, soon after the Civil War; Veterans Day, as Armistice Day following the end of World War I.


Chariton jumped on the Decoration Day bandwagon rather late, and newspaper editors of the 1870s did a lot of scolding about that --- comparing Lucas County's lackluster remembrances unfavorably to those in other Iowa cities. The organization of Daniel Iseminger Post No. 18, Grand Army of the Republic --- and the deaths of the first returning veterans --- changed all of that. Precedents were established that continued to be followed until World War I changed the face of a century.

Fresh flowers were gathered from gardens across Chariton in the morning and brought to the square. Soon after noon, processions formed at the southwest corner to march to the cemetery --- a band if available, G.A.R. members, other veterans, a Woman's Relief Corps delegation, fraternal organizations marching as units, then carriages bearing dignitaries and the frail and finally anyone else who cared to follow along. 

At the cemetery, the flowers were distributed among the graves of veterans, then the procession formed again and returned to the square for a program --- heavy on oratory --- in the Mallory Opera House, on the courthouse lawn or in a church, depending upon circumstances.

Businesses closed during the observance. Beforehand, milliners scheduled special hours so that women who wished to have patriotic trim added to their hats could get it done.


It's the oratory, still a centerpiece of Memorial Day programs the last time I attended one, that makes me nervous. But then I'm a veteran of a war in which 58,000 U.S. troops were slaughtered for no apparent reason and up to a million Vietnamese, a substantial percentage of them innocents, died.

I used think that if I heard "made the ultimate sacrifice" or "gave his all for his country" another time I'd throw up.

They're still at it; can't help themselves. President Obama announced at Arlington this year that "Everything that we hold precious in this country was made possible by Americans who gave their all." And Vice-president Biden told us that the last of our "heroes" soon would be coming home from Afghanistan.

If these guys, and countless other politicians and public speakers, told the truth about war they'd be eviscerated. It's awful, it's dirty and it's bloody. Those who die do so for the most part horribly, much of the time in great pain; our dead would have preferred to live. Many who survive come home broken; in too many instances, sacrificed to feed the vanity of politicians and generals; "their all" taken rather than freely given.

Careless use of the word "hero" cheapens it. Our military is made up of men and women of honor, deserving of respect and gratitude, but few of them would claim the title. It belongs to the few who in specific and narrow sets of circumstances did and do offer up their lives for their friends.

That 9-year-old who "loves war" needs to know all this.


I used to visit about this time of year, occasionally with a friend deeply scarred by Vietnam, Iowa's memorial to its dead from that war, located on the Capitol grounds in Des Moines (top). This is an Iowa-nice version of Maya Lin's stunning Wall adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The names are here, too, engraved in reflective black granite, but it lacks the power of the original.

It is imperative I think to honor and remember our dead from all wars on Memorial Day and at other times; and to show appreciation on Veterans Day and other days to all who have served. To mourn lives lost and lost potential, especially to care for the walking wounded.

The original Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is a black scar, cut into the earth, a deep wound healing now as grass grows around it and by the touch of thousands who brush their fingers across the names.

All wars are black wounds and represent collective failure in the human family, any glory now attached attributed later because of mixed guilt and gratitude.

Such wounds heal only when we acknowledge them, recognize them for what they are, then practice peace.


Steve Hanken said...

Frank, my two years in Vietnam defined part of me from that point forward. I, like you, become revolted by politicians who make these crazy things happen and pay cheap homage to the loss of life by continuing these wars on top of war. I raised money to build the "Iowa Nice" memorial to our dead. I also was instrumental in getting a Vets Center into Cedar Rapids, when those same Iowa politicians would not help get it here. For over 20 years our Vet Center was a satellite of Rock Island, Illinois. A feat unparalleled in messing with protocol of the Veterans Administration when our regional center is in Denver and Rock Island is in Chicago! Yes, Vietnam trained me well in the art of upsetting apple carts!

Doc Williamson said...

Frank, that's a sad yet but beautiful article, thank you. Peace.