*Note: While convalescing from my recent illness and/or spousal poisoning, I had prepared a GTBT lecture on the Mongol Invasions, but in honor of Memorial Day, I hope you don’t mind if I substituted this lecture instead.
These days I hear an awful lot of “Have a nice holiday” or “Enjoy the long weekend” or some other wishy-washy balderdash from people I’d rather avoid. And I’ll tell you what, it makes me livid. Can’t you say the holiday’s name? How hard is that? We all know how "Merry Christmas" has been stolen from us by moronic clowns, but lately I've noticed these substitutes being deployed for all sorts of holidays. Can't tell you when was the last time I heard a "Happy Flag Day" from anyone.
And do you know what I definitely haven't heard? A twenty-one gun salute going up across the land, bells ringing from every clock tower, and women laden with wreathes and garland following a line of solemn men as they march to pay respect to the fallen. Yet another sign we have long ago ceased to be a serious people.
The origins of Memorial Day lie in the wake of the Civil War, as the exhausted nation shook itself free of that long horrendous nightmare. It began as several Decoration Days organized by the states on behalf of their war dead. Gradually, these days were coordinated and became more national in character, although the name Decoration Day did not fall out of use until after World War II. In my opinion, I'm sorry to see the old name go. It was a straightforward idea once. It was a day for decorating graves. Just one day out of the year to remember our sons killed in battle.
And now we avoid saying "Memorial Day" out loud. Indeed, it seems a source of mental confusion for some. "It's a day off from work, right? So, it must be a happy kind of day. It's like the start of summer, isn't it? Oh wait, that's right, it's about war or military people or something. Um... What to say...? Have a nice three-day weekend!"
Still, maybe I’m off my rocker. Maybe there’s nothing so terribly wrong about this and I’m just an old curmudgeon with too much time on his hands. But on the other hand, what if it’s not entirely harmless? What if it’s a signal of a seeping societal amnesia? Something that has been going on slowly for decades, as life has grown more convenient and less hazardous, and especially as the distance increases from those major wars in which the burden of military service was far more widespread. I fear sometimes, that you youngsters, and even folks my age, are beginning to forget who we are as a people. Or even worse, it is no longer provident to openly affirm our shared history and identity.
Now, I can’t judge for certain, and I really don't want to interfere too much with anyone's day. By all means, fire up the grill, crack open some cold suds, and argue with the wife over why she's making three different kinds of potato salad. Those are all fine traditions and I don't care much to spoil them. Instead, please allow me to suggest one small addition:
Go to the cemetery.
Pick one. Any cemetery will probably do. Take an hour out of your day and walk around the cemetery for a while and just look at the tombstones. Before too long, you’ll see one marked “Korea” or “WWII” or if it’s an old enough cemetery “WWI” or perhaps “Civil War”. And I can’t guarantee this, but upon one grave you may find, in addition, these words: “Killed in Action”.
And if you do find such a tombstone, please remember: that man lying beneath your feet is what this day is all about.
Was he an honest-to-god American hero? Possibly. And here you might expect me to wax rhapsodic about his several glorious deeds, using lots of cuss-words and gratuitous references to male anatomy – since I know all you youngsters like that sort of thing.
But more likely than not, he wasn’t some larger-than-life hero. He was probably someone much like you, or me, or some pal of yours, or some great-uncle you never met. Just an ordinary fella, snatched up by forces beyond his control, put into a uniform and told to do a job, and on a given day on that job, he was shot, or hit by shrapnel, or drowned at sea – and now, he’s gone.
That is the mundane reality of war. No courage could have shielded him, nor cowardice spared him. The gods of war had prepared his end long before he ever set foot on the battlefield. He's gone forever, whoever he was, or whoever he might have turned out to be. Perhaps he was a scoundrel, perhaps he was a saint, most probably he was someone in between. All we know is that there's one less place at the table. One more woman who never found a husband. One more child who never knew his father.
Every young death is tragic, make no mistake, but the dead of war are different. In some sense, the responsibility for these dead is laid onto the nation and the subsequent generations. And though we may rightly point out the nation was forced into a given war, or that such a war was necessary to prevent a greater evil, we cannot simply ignore this burden. We may blame others, but we must bury our own. And once a man is buried, it behooves us to remember - at least once a year - where he lies and why he lies there.
I agree it'd be a little off-putting to say "Happy Memorial Day" but perhaps we should still say something. "Remember your countrymen," or something like that. I don't know, try something out. Maybe it'll catch on.
That's all I wanted to say with this lecture. No good thing, bad thing "bit" this week.
Do your reading,