Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Thoughts

Today is our opportunity to take a moment and think about the staggering expenditures of blood, energy, and treasure that serve as the foundation for the lives we have. Certainly, in time of war such a day is all the more poignant; however, as a society, we seem to have gotten away from what Memorial Day represents. Now, the focus is on barbeque, vacations, and beer in the sun, with a large helping of public indifference and rejection mixed in, but in 1865, the concept was profoundly different.
The Civil War had finally come to an end in early May, 1865, and the newly reunited country was left to survey the damage: cities burned, people displaced, infrastructure destroyed. More difficult to come to grips with was the shattering butcher's bill: millions wounded or ill, and over 660,000 dead. Adjusted for today's population, that would mean over 5 million dead today.
One response to that massive effusion of blood was a grassroots memorialization effort throughout the country. There are records of flowers being placed on mass graves, songs being written, and the setting aside of an entire day to commemorate those who had died. Though President Johnson declared that Waterloo, NY was the birthplace of Memorial Day, these early efforts first coalesced into a "Decoration Day" which, according to Prof. David Blight of Yale University, was started by newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. The site was a racetrack which had served as a Confederate prison camp and evolved into a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died in custody. The now-free men and women exhumed the dead soldiers and reburied them in individual graves. Each grave was decorated with flowers, and an archway was placed at the cemetary entrance declaring the spot a Union cemetary, which was a particularly gutsy thing to do in the cradle of the Confederacy.
Over the next few years, there was a groundswell of energy around rememberance of the casualties of war, until General John Logan, commanding officer of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a "memorial day" on May 5, 1868. This proclamation was first observed on May 30th, 1868, when , in the tradition of the ancient Greeks, flowers were placed on the Union and Confederate graves at the newly established Arlington National Cemetery (which, notably, had previously been the homestead of General Robert E. Lee).
Now established, Memorial Day became entrenched over the next few decades, and has also evolved away from its traditions of actual reflection and rumination over war and what it does to our country, into a more sanitized, easy to swallow, meat and beer fest filled with political sloganeering and vast public cynicism.
In the midst of our current celebration, it is not only important to remember what our fighting men and women have given us, but what we as a society can establish and vigorously support for their benefit. First is the Veteran's Administration, established by President Lincoln to support and care for "those who have borne the battle". To this end, there is a grassroots effort coming out of Detroit called "Project Salute".
Next is the GI Bill, roundly acclaimed as a brilliant investment in the future of our army and those who serve, which, tragically, is being disputed. The NY Times presents a brief discussion on this latter issue, and as we enjoy our day, add a few minutes to your reflection time to read this article.
Not sure how to end this post, because "Happy Memorial Day" always seems like a conflicted statement. I'll leave you with this thought: perhaps a goal for all of us could be to change the way we think about this day, and with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War only 7 years away, we could focus on reclaiming some of the perspective and focus of our forebearers when they reflected on war and our soldiers.

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