memorial my ass

Yeah, I pretty much dislike Memorial Day. Don’t get me wrong; the idea of honoring the men and women who died while serving the nation — that I respect. But that’s not really what Memorial Day is anymore. Now it’s mostly a day to say something nice about veterans, maybe see a parade, go shopping, then eat a hamburger. And you can usually skip right to the hamburger.

The thing is, a lot of folks don’t even understand Memorial Day. They get it confused with Veterans Day, which is a different beast altogether. The confusion is understandable, on account of they’re both about people in uniforms and big big big shopping discounts and picnics with hamburgers.

Ice-Memorial-Day-Sale-Event

Allow me to ‘splain the differences. Memorial Day is the one where you say nice things about folks that actually died while in uniform.  Veterans Day is the one where you offer ritual thanks for everybody who put on military harness — dead, living, somewhere in between (and if you think that’s just a figure of speech, go visit a VA hospital).

I like Veterans Day. That’s what we call it in the U.S., although most Western nations call it Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. I like it because it still retains some meaning. It’s still celebrated on the same day — the anniversary of the end of the First World War. The 11th day of the 11th month.SM-Memorial-Day-Maddness-mattress-hub-0515-homepage

Memorial Day used to have meaning. It began as Decoration Day — a day when folks would decorate the graves of soldiers who died during the American Civil War. It was an organic holiday. It began spontaneously, on different days, in different years, in different parts of the nation. Folks just went to cemeteries where Civil War troops were buried and decorated the graves. You know, out of respect.

One of the earliest Decoration Day events took place in Charleston, South Carolina. Union prisoners of war had been interned at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. More than 250 of them died and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. In April of 1865, a small group of freed slaves reburied the bodies in individual graves. They constructed a fence around the burial site, and put up an arched entryway with the inscription Martyrs of the Race Course. Then on the first day of May, some ten thousand former slaves and some white missionaries decorated the cemetery with flowers, and they held a picnic on the site.

New graves of Union soldiers at the Washington Race Course

New graves of Union soldiers at the Washington Race Course

Now that is a serious show of respect. Over time, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and through some sort of osmotic agreement, it was celebrated throughout the nation on May 30th. At least it was until 1968, when everything changed. But I’ll come back to that in a bit. First let’s reduce this national holiday to the personal level.

In April of that same year, 1968, a young photographer named Art Greenspon shot this photograph in the jungle southwest of Hue. Alpha Company of the 101st Airborne had walked into an ambush. Several killed, more wounded. Bad weather prevented any medevac until the following day. So the troops sat awake all night, in the rain, with their wounded and dead, wondering if they’d get hit again. The next day, when the rain lifted enough for a medevac, Greenspon got this shot of a soldier directing the chopper. By that point it had rained so long and hard that when Greenspon tried to rewind the film in his camera, it stuck to the pressure plate.

Here’s some military esoterica for you: the first choppers take the wounded; the last choppers take the bodies. The bodies can wait; they’re not going to get any more dead. Greenspon flew out on a chopper filled with body bags. When he got back to his base, he discovered most of the shots weren’t usable. This one was.

greenspon vietnam

Art Greenspon was paid US$15 for that photograph. That’s all he’s ever been paid for it. A week later he and another photographer, Charles Eggleston, found themselves in a firefight outside of Saigon. Eggleston was hit by rifle fire and killed. One of the bullets passed through Eggleston’s hand, which slowed the round enough that when it hit Greenspon in the face, it didn’t kill him. Instead, the bullet lodged in his sinus cavity. In order to remove the bullet and minimize the facial scarring, the surgeons broke his cheekbone from inside his mouth.

Two months after that, during the darkest days of the war in Vietnam, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The intent of the act was to change the date on which four holidays were traditionally celebrated in order to create three-day weekends. Great news for workers and a boon to commercial enterprises. The effect, however, was to trivialize those holidays. Now Presidents Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day are all about mattress sales and potato salad. We’re not really thinking about the men and women dying in jungles or deserts; we’re thinking about buying summer clothes.

Nello-Olivo-memorial-sales-event

Oh, we’ll still say nice things about the men and women who died in uniform. We’ll still have parades (that very few people attend), and politicians will still give speeches (that very few people will listen to), but mostly we’re just glad to have that extra day on the weekend, and a chance to save a buck on a mattress, and hey, it’s a good time of year for a picnic.

So yeah, I pretty much dislike Memorial Day. I don’t want to see the parade. I don’t want to buy a pair of cheap-ass flip-flops. I don’t want to hear any politician thanking the troops for their sacrifice.

I want politicians to stop sacrificing them.

ADDENDUM: Last year on Memorial Day I wrote about my accidental visit to the local cemetery in the small town of Maxwell, Iowa. This year, while running around, I made an intentional detour to Maxwell. It looks exactly the same as it did last year (and probably for the last umpty-ump years) — flags lining the tiny town center, and all over the cemetery.

Maxwell, IA. Memorial Day, 2015

Maxwell, IA. Memorial Day, 2015

It doesn’t make up for the apathy and commercialism, but there’s something innocent and fundamentally decent about the way these small towns continue to honor their dead.

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9 thoughts on “memorial my ass

  1. Yes! Thank you!

    There is an opera house here called War Memorial… the irony is not lost on me that we have “honoured” murder and destruction by giving its name to a place of beauty and art.

    I am tired of all the monuments to war and warriors. I am sick of it, too. Sick and tired. I am sick and tired of people who yearn for, call for, demonstrate for peace being marginalized and criticized as lunatics and/or traitors (or at the least called unpatriotic). I’m tired of it all.

    And I’m tired of the word hero. Seriously tired of it. Not every soldier that dies in a war is a hero. Very, very few of them give their lives. Their lives are taken from them.

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    • I’m okay with monuments to the folks who do the actual fighting and dying. Maybe it’s because I come from a military family. I very much want folks to pay attention to individual soldiers. And while it’s absolutely true that good soldiers aren’t necessarily good civilians — or even good people — the fact remains (for me, at any rate) that their service has value.

      I don’t feel the same about the politicians who so callously send other people’s kids off to kill and die. Fuck them in the neck.

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      • What I guess I meant to say is that I wish the fuck we honoured people for their efforts to promote peace at least as often as we honour those who kill and maim.

        I sometimes think that the only reason our politicians start wars is so that they and their successors will have more veterans to whom they can give political blow-jobs.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Lawdy, that article is so wrong-headed on so many levels. It’s like Vulcan chess played by the rules of Calvinball. The fact is, President Bush’s policies in Iraq (and I use the term ‘policies’ loosely) has fucked things up in that region to such an extent that there’s no way to unfuck it. It’ll take at least a generation for some sort of order to come out it.

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  2. I much prefer not to try to blame all the ills of the nation on the leadership of Presidents past. What I would have hoped for is that the mistakes of the nation be identified and from them lessons learned. Furthermore, I think there is reason to discontinue holidays in general as their individual meaning has been lost in time and replaced by a degree of commercialism that has made them more a farce than a time to reflect.

    But, then again, I’m older and have a greater capacity for remembering than the young pups in this for themselves at the expense of everyone else. And you can add to this the various levels of federal, state and local governments occupied by those ore interested in their own personal and political agendas than they are representing those of us who still vote to elect or re-elect them.

    I never thought I would ever live long enough to witness the demise of America as we know it, but with each passing day, I now believe I may just make it long enough to see the collapse of America. And those of us handing on by the very skin of our teeth will be those who will be forced to GIVE everything to whomever, or whatever, takes its place.

    Sad!

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    • There’s a difference, I think, between assessing blame and recognizing responsibility. The fact is, the current state of affairs in Iraq and Syria — including the birth and rise of ISIL — is a direct result of decisions made by the Bush administration. Not just the invasion of Iraq, but the dismantling of the Iraqi military leadership and the installation of US administrators who had political connections in the US but no knowledge of Iraqi culture. Even worse, the Bush administration ignored the advice of the experts who DID have the knowledge.

      The multiple cascading failures by the Bush administration created such instability that it’ll likely take a generation to repair. At this point — and for the foreseeable future — the very best the US can do is to attempt to mitigate the disaster.

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      • But isn’t this true of all administrations and not only the ones we remember (or only choose to remember)? History easily shows what takes place thought to be in the best interests of the nation at a particular time often comes back to haunt us years down the road.

        And inasmuch as everyone likes to crawl all over Bush (no, I didn’t vote for him either), I wonder how long it will take this nation to overcome the BS being generated not only by this administration, but government as a whole?

        Luckily I may not have that many more years left on the face of the Earth to even concern myself with it …

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      • It’s true that all administrations make mistakes, yes. And I believe it’s true that all administrations try to act in what they consider to be the best interests of the public. But I can’t think of any other administration that launched a large scale pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation, or any other administration whose foreign policy created such massive, long-range, disastrous results.

        This isn’t a personal critique of George W. Bush; it’s a policy critique.

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