Today starts Memorial Day weekend, the first of this year’s three three-day weekends and historically in Wisconsin, the three-day weekend of the most dubious weather.
This is the point where some commentators harrumph that Memorial Day, which is supposed to honor those who died in military service to our country, has instead become the unofficial first weekend of summer. (Which it is.) It’s not clear to me why those two things need to be mutually exclusive. It’s also not clear to me what setting Memorial Day at its old date, May 30 (which is actually Memorial Day this year), would accomplish.
The reason for Memorial Day was stated by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1884:
… It celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall — at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.
Memorial Day is a reminder of the cost of the reality that there are some things worth fighting for. As has been said by many others, freedom is not free. At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury whether the U.S. relied too much on “hard power,” the military, instead of “soft power,” diplomacy. Powell’s answer:
“We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace. But there comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works.”
(More from Powell on Memorial Day can be read here.)
In contrast, the live version of Bruce Springsteen’s remake of Edwin Starr’s “War” begins with these deep thoughts: “… Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.” (Did he mean his wife, his family, God or whatever religion he has, too?) As for the premise stated in the song’s refrain — “War! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” — the survivors of several concentration camps and other victims of Nazi Germany may have a different opinion. For that matter, the fact that one-fourth of the Cambodian population was killed after the end of the Vietnam War suggests that U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia may not have been the best thing for Southeast Asia.
You can argue the merits of the war in Iraq, or how the Bush and Obama administrations are prosecuting the war on terror. (As if there’s a difference.) You can even argue whether World War I accomplished anything except for paving the way for World War II. The idea, however, that war is something that can be eliminated if we just all resolve to get along assumes that human nature can be defeated, and that there’s no moral difference between sides. Would pacifists be pleased with a country where the southern third of it owned slaves and no one did anything about it because all viewpoints, even a viewpoint that approved of enslaving human beings, are valid?
John Stuart Mill put it best:
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
As with many things, the real spirit of Memorial Day can be best found in small towns. (In a general sense, those who live in small towns seem much more rooted in reality and traditional values than the big-city elites.) Back in my weekly newspaper days, I wrote an annual story previewing Memorial Day events, with members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars visiting any cemetery in which a veteran was buried. The observance culminated in a small parade and program at the high school, where “In Flanders Fields” would be read and “Taps” would be played. (I was a bugler in Boy Scouts, so I played “Taps,” though never at a funeral.)
Our traditional Memorial Day weekend plans are to head southwest to the in-laws, so my wife can see her sister and brother and our children can see their aunts, uncles and cousins. The fourth Saturday of most months is the scheduled date for the steak fry held by the Jacob J. Berg–Albert A. Averkamp VFW Post 5276 in Potosi, across the street from the original site of the Potosi Brewery. I have been attending Potosi steak fries for 18 years, usually preceding them with a Brandy Old Fashioned, the official mixed drink of Wisconsin.
On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is the annual Glen Haven Fire Department Catfish Fry, with my four favorite words: “All You Can Eat.” Glen Haven is, I believe, one end of Wisconsin, just as Northport is the other end — the county highway that goes into Glen Haven dead-ends into a Mississippi River boat landing, and even though there are roads northwest and southeast out of Glen Haven, it feels like that’s the end of the state.
Memorial Day has turned into an occasion to remember not just military dead, but members of the family who have passed on as well. The weekend includes a visit to my in-laws’ section of Hillside Cemetery in Lancaster. Most years, if it works schedule-wise, I stop this weekend at Resurrection Cemetery in Madison, the gravesite of my older brother, who died of a brain tumor before his second birthday, a year before I was born. The saddest part about that is that he is buried in a section of the cemetery that was reserved in the early 1960s for babies and young children, many of whom died younger than he did. And yet there’s something about having your own children running around a cemetery — strange as it sounds, it’s a reminder that life does go on.
Resurrection Cemetery is also the final resting place of someone who grew up in Madison the same time I did, comedian Chris Farley. (I highly recommend his biography, The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts, cowritten by his older brother. Since I read it, I’ve been trying to figure out where our paths crossed; he was born and raised in the Madison area and attended Edgewood High School, graduating one year before I graduated from La Follette High School. I think our paths might have crossed at an Edgewood–La Follette football game in 1980 or 1981; he played defensive line, and I played trumpet.)
This weekend makes one think what this nation’s military dead died for. “They died for our country” is the obvious answer, but what does that specifically mean? Joseph Campbell defined a hero as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,” which our military dead certainly did. In the case of this country, “something bigger” isn’t just the flag or something that symbolizes our country; it’s all the things, great and small, that make up our way of life — our right to make a living the way we want, to live where we want, to express opinions about the state of things and to express ourselves in other ways — even something seemingly mundane like three-day weekends.
Jack Buck, one of the great sportscasters, was a World War II veteran who survived the Battle of the Bulge. He visited Normandy, the site where the Allied invasion of Europe began on D-Day, and, upon seeing visitors to the cemetery in a less-than-solemn mood, penned this poem (from his autobiography That’s a Winner):
They chatter and they laugh as they pass by my grave
And that’s the way it should be.
For what they have done, and what they will do, has
nothing to do with me.
I was tossed ashore by a friendly wave
With some unfriendly steel in my head.
They chatter and they laugh as they pass by my grave
But I know they’ll soon be dead.
They’ve counted more days than I ever knew
And that’s all right with me too.
We’re all souls in one pod, all headed for God
Too soon, or later, like you.
President Benjamin Harrison gets the last word about the holiday formerly known as Decoration Day:
I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.