The sulphurous smoke of cannon fusillades drifted over the field in hazy clouds as an Army chaplain declared in a voice booming with hooah how inspiring he found its scent, how much he loved the smell of the battlefield.
An Army general then spoke. Those of us gathered there that day were “true patriots,” he said. We could find more “true patriots” like us in Texas and Oklahoma and throughout the Southern US states. We were in Kansas, but he didn’t explain why we could only find them in those states and here, or what especially made us (and them) “true patriots.”
This was Memorial Day seven years ago at the National Cemetery where just a few months earlier my wife and I had buried our son, Francis. A veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan during some of the worst fighting in the early years of those conflicts, he died at home, like too many other young veterans, a casualty in the aftermath of these wars.
The blustering and factionalism of that spectacle is strongly etched in our memories. It left us feeling empty, even sickened, not just for ourselves, but for our son, too. It was perhaps an extreme example of how both Memorial Day and Veterans Day have been wrung out of shape since their origins, yet it was also emblematic of the contrasting ways we collectively and individually experience them.
Credit for the first Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it was called in the years immediately following the Civil War, is sometimes given to a group of women in Columbus, Georgia, (or Mississippi, depending on whom you ask), who — seeing unkempt Union graves alongside their own soldiers’ — also honored them with flowers and wreaths. Doubtless, a difficult gesture for some, who may have felt disloyal, even resentful, as they dressed the graves of former enemy soldiers.
Historian David W. Blight suggests that rightful credit for Memorial Day belongs to newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, who “founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers labeled ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.'” In April 1865, those freedmen took on the onerous task of digging up a mass grave and reburying Union soldiers who had perished in the prison there. Then on May 1, thousands of freed men, women and children gathered to sing, pray and lay wreaths in remembrance of soldiers who had fought for their freedom.
Veterans Day is not a uniquely American holiday. It began following the First World War and is widely commemorated in many countries throughout the world, both formally and informally, from Europe and Canada to Hong Kong and South Africa, and known variously as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day and Armistice Day, as it was once called in the US.
Remembrance Day in Great Britain began in the sober recognition that wars such as the one that had just ended in 1918 were too ghastly, too unthinkable ever to be repeated. The shock of that long and terrible war was still profound a year after the armistice was declared.
The first commemoration in the UK was simple and unaffected. King George V declared that “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be, for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities.” With no formal ceremony planned, the nation’s leaders were uncertain if the public would respond. But as Big Ben tolled the hour, in London and all over the country, and with no further prompting, everything stopped. Telegraph and phone exchanges went silent. So visceral and fresh was the pain of that war that some people simply fell to their knees and wept.
Still, even in the midst of such raw emotion, the crass found a way to act crassly.
“The clergy,” reported one newspaper, “were in scarlet, and were wearing medals, as if in thanksgiving for victory.”
The British lost nearly a million lives in that war. Almost no home in the country was untouched. Sacrifice was universal. Remembrance Day was a day of grief that entailed widespread understanding that wars such as the great one that had just ended should never be allowed to happen again.
In the US, Armistice Day did not become a federal holiday until 1938. Then later — with the homecoming of soldiers from World War II and the Korean War, and at the urging of veterans’ groups — President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation in 1954 renaming it Veterans Day.
Memorial Day and Veterans Day, as we now commemorate them in the US, often seem little more than a shadow of their origins. On Memorial Day, most of those who do take pause do so in remembrance of US military war dead, but not enemy war dead, as those Southern women did after the Civil War. Nor do we commemorate civilian victims of war: a million in Vietnam; more than 600,000 in Iraq as a result of the US invasion 15 years ago, though the actual death toll is “hard to determine,” according to The Washington Post. In Afghanistan, more than 31,000 civilians have been killed and 41,000 injured since the deployment of US troops there in 2001, while in Yemen, an unparalleled humanitarian crisis has been catalyzed by US support for three years of Saudi attacks on civilian targets.
One of the most tone-deaf Memorial Day tributes (literally) has to be the annual swarm of motorcycles in Washington, DC. Bikers have co-opted the handle “Rolling Thunder” from the code name for a three-year carpet-bombing campaign in Vietnam that killed more than 70,000 civilians. So, what does all that noise memorialize?
On Veterans Day, war-machine porn is rolled out all over the country in booming artillery displays and stealth fighter flyovers at football stadiums. We stand for the national anthem, but whether we stand is a crucible for identifying “true patriots.” The anthem itself has, for many, come to be identified with pledging loyalty to the military.
Doubtless, much of this martial ritualism is both cause and effect of a generation of continuous war. Yet oddly, a war — or more accurately wars — that require only vicarious participation by most. We are called upon to act the role of “true patriots” when the occasion arises, as on these holidays, with no other sacrifice asked or offered. The English civilian experience of The Great War has nothing in common with the US civilian experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — or our military engagements in Somalia, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere around the globe — which barely receive passing mention even in mainstream news coverage.
Such commemorations have little to do with my son’s sacrifice and how we remember him and many others like him. He would agree. Uncoded jingoism at services like the one described above are an insult to his memory.
These days might better serve us, and those whom we mean to honor, by meditating on needless sacrifice, needless wars, opportunities lost, the reality of war’s awfulness, as those at the first Remembrance Day did. It is a time to reflect on how to end the wars we’re in and avoid future wars. The very ways in which these commemorations have changed reveal a callousness toward war that has insidiously transformed over several generations of continuous war. An American 19- or 20-year-old today has no living memory of the US not being at war. What are the consequences of raising an entire generation this way?
In her collection of myths and stories of Pacific Northwest First Nations, Daughters of Copper Woman, Anne Cameron describes the psychological damage her ancestors suffered from going to war against English and Spanish invaders:
When people get pushed to the point where killin’ seems the only way, somethin’ happens to them. They get jerked around inside somehow, and it takes a long time to get right again. When I was young they told me if a generation of people got pushed to killin’ other people, it took four generations of peace to get peoples’ heads fixed afterwards. And we ain’t had them four generations.
Nor have we.
A walk through the cemetery where Francis is buried — or any national cemetery — reveals a nation that has not passed even one generation without war. History is linear in a military cemetery. Wars have been reliable waypoints on our journey since the nation’s beginnings. Four generations may not be enough to recover from those wars, or from the generation-long wars that began in 2001. Today, on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, is a good day to begin.