All of us are built upon the bones of the dead. The experiences of loss are part of what make us who we are. We talk about survivors, but if the tragedy is large enough, painful enough, traumatic enough, then the person who walks into the room isn’t the same person who walks out of it. In a way, none of us are survivors, because the person we were dies on that floor, on that road, in that moment, with the people we lose. We walk away, we’re still alive, but everything we thought we were is brought into question if the loss is big enough.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington DC.
Memorial day was originally Decoration Day, to remember the Fallen from the Civil War. It was a war like no other that America has fought in because of how much it divided our country. Brother fought brother, father fought son, families literally met each other across the battlefield lines time and time again. We lost 620,000 people, which is still the largest loss of American life in a single armed conflict, before or since. We needed a way to mourn all our dead, those that fought on “our” side, and those we loved that fought on the “other” side. So Decoration Day was born, and then there was World War I, where Europe lost, from best estimates, 15% of it’s men between the ages of 18-30. An entire generation of men and countless civilians were lost across the face of Europe. Americans came to fight, to bleed, and some to die, but we did not lose the number that some of our European allies and enemies lost, because it wasn’t our fight at first, and it was never fought on our home soil like our Civil War. It was supposed to be the war that ended all wars because it was fought at such a terrible cost; but we all know that it wasn’t the last war.
World War II came and this one didn’t kill as many soldiers but it still made us pay in a loss of life that no one expected. The soldiers that helped free the concentration camp victims would tell stories of horrors beyond imagining. One of the reasons it hurt the consciousness of Europe, and us, is that we considered the Germans civilized. Germany wasn’t the idea of a barbaric nation, which was still something that people believed sincerely then, that the poor, uncivilized savages could be forgiven atrocities because they didn’t know any better; “we,” meaning the civilized world, hadn’t taught them our ways yet. The Germans had given the world Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, and Handel, Goethe, Rilke, Heine, and Schiller, the Dusseldorf school of painting, Cornith, Caspar David Friedrich, Franz Marc, and Albrecht Durer – they were “us.” For the soldiers who freed the camps of WWII in Europe, and those who would come later to help gather evidence of the crimes committed, the thought that seemed to bother them the most was that the people who did this evil, and it is evil by any definition I am aware of, were fellow Europeans, and for Americans there was still this ideal that the Europeans were more cultured than we were. But what was behind the barbed wire, written in meticulous detail, was barbarism on a grand scale. Let me add that America interred Japanese Americans in our own camps. We didn’t do the experiments and atrocities that the Nazis did, but it is still a black mark on our country. There were Japanese Americans that fought on our side in the war while the rest of their families were prisoners. So much horror, so much gone wrong; for some reason I thought this was when Memorial Day became an official three day holiday, but I was wrong.
It was 1971 when then President Richard Nixon made Memorial Day a national three day weekend. It wasn’t WWII with it’s more clear cut rights and wrongs, but the Vietnam War that gave us the holiday as we know it. I was totally puzzled for a few minutes as I reviewed the history, and then I realized that if ever America had needed a holiday to remind us that our soldiers had given their lives first in the Revolutionary War that made us a country, through two World Wars, the Korean Conflict/War, and others, it was then, during the most unpopular war that we had ever fought. 1971 and the Vietnam War was part of what would forever change our country and how we viewed a lot of things. It was the end of an almost childlike faith that America had, that we were the good guys. We would come out of this time in our history far less sure of many things and out of that confusion came Memorial Day.
I wish that I could stop this blog here in the ’70’s, but the losses have continued. We have sent hundreds of thousands of our men and women to foreign lands for one conflict or another since then, including the on-going conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. This is the weekend to remember those who never came home.
Veterans Day on November 11 is the anniversary of the Armistice of WWI. It’s the day we thank the men and women who have served our country. Hug a vet, shake their hands, say thank you for your service, on Veterans Day. It’s a day to let them know we appreciate them. Memorial Day is for remembering the Fallen, those that gave their all to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, because that’s what their oath is to; not the President, not any of the politicians, but to the document that formed our country. They fight and die for our freedoms, not just freedom, but specific freedoms guaranteed us in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Soldiers can have as many issues with our politicians as the rest of us, they didn’t give their oath of fidelity to the politicians in Washington but to the very concepts that forged our nation. They gave their word they would defend their country from all enemies both foreign and domestic, and for some men and women their word is still their bond, honor is still a real concept and not just a pretty word in a speech. Truth, honor, respect, these words should still mean something to all of us.
While you’re grilling that steak, or watching your kids play in the pool, remember that this weekend is to honor and remember those that couldn’t come home. The men that aren’t there to grill for their family. The children that are motherless because their mother gave her life for her country. Those that couldn’t come home to their wives, their husbands, their loved ones. You can disagree with the politics that sent them to war, and trust me a lot of military men and women do, but they do their duty because they took an oath to do just that.
This weekend is for the Fallen, regardless of politics. It is to honor those who truly gave their all in service. If that’s not worth a moment of silence and prayer, I don’t know what is.