"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day

As a kid between the ages of about 10 and 15 back home in Massachusetts, Memorial Day was always one of the biggest days of the year for me. Not only did it mean backyard cookouts, or a picnic in the park, but the day heralded the official start of Summer -- which meant that vacation from school was not far behind.

It was also one of my favorite days because of our town's Memorial Day Parade. You should understand that in the tiny town of Hamilton where I grew up, there was very little excitement. The two big events of the year were July 4th -- when the town hosted a carnival, midway, fireworks and bonfire -- and our one and only parade each Memorial Day. When you're a small-town kid, parades are a Big Deal, and I was always thrilled by the pageantry of the uniforms and the marching bands. (I guess maybe I had a little of The Music Man in me, which was popular around the same time.) Every year I would bedeck my bicycle with red, white and blue crepe paper streamers through the spokes and flags on the handlebars so I could ride it in the parade alongside the other kids who did the same. People would wave at me and applaud my decorative efforts, and I loved it.

At the same time, however, the true meaning of Memorial Day was not lost on me. I remember from my American History lesson:
Memorial Day was first officially observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the headstones of both Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery after a proclamation issued by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. It was a holiday primarily observed in the North until after World War I, when the focus changed from honoring soldiers killed in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died in any war.
In the years of my youth from about 1958 through 1963, the holiday was almost all about paying homage to the veterans of World War II, which was not exactly a distant memory then. To put this in perspective, think about fifteen years ago today, when the big stories were the devastation of South Florida by Hurricane Andrew, and President George Bush The Elder puking on the Prime Minister during a visit to Japan (Bill Clinton would be elected to succeed Bush later that same year). Then remember the first Gulf War in 1990. Doesn't seem like that long ago, does it? That's how folks in my home town thought about the Big War in Europe. Most vets were fairly young, in their 40's and 50's, and there was a strong feeling of pride, honor, and appreciation for these former soldiers who had, quite literally, saved the world from fascism and evil.

Our town parade always started at the Hamilton Cemetery where local victims of the war had been laid to rest, and after a solemn ceremony including a 21-gun salute, the parade commenced down the main street to downtown. Naturally, there was considerable sorrow for those who had lost their lives, but it was tempered with a resolute pride that they had done so for a worthy and just cause, in the defense of freedom.

Today, of course, it's a different story, as American pride hasn't been quite the same since WWII. In large part this is a legacy of Vietnam, when returning veterans were (unjustly) spat upon as "baby-killers", and America was forced to end the conflict, if not in defeat, at least without accomplishing its military objectives. This was a terrible time in our country's history, not just because of the casualties on the battlefield, but for the polarizing effect the war had on those at home. Not since the Civil War has a conflict so divided brother from brother, turned friend against friend, or neighbor against neighbor. The political fight at home took center stage even from the military theater of operations, and in some ways we've never been the same since.

In the intervening years, it seems that to those who think of Memorial Day as more than just a long weekend marking the beginning of summer fun, there has been much less pride and a lot more sorrow, which has been particularly true during the last few years of our Iraq involvement. Let me make it perfectly clear that I make a huge distinction between our soldiers who are over there doing their jobs with honor as best as they can, and Dubya and his gang of neo-con idiots who got us into this mess in the first place. It's no secret that I strongly disagree with our country's Iraq policy, nor do I subscribe to the theory that "if we don't fight them in the streets there, we'll be fighting them in the streets here". To me, the reason we're caught in the middle of this civil war is simple: Bush had a score to settle, and he values oil more than blood. There's no longer any viable way for us to "win" in Iraq, at least in the traditional sense of the enemy laying down their arms in surrender, and the sooner we get the hell out of there the better.

Yet politics are meaningless to the men and women in Iraq who are doing the dirty work, following the orders of their superiors, taking the risks, and most importantly, losing their lives -- and they have my utmost respect. The fact that many of us question the wisdom of continuing our involvement in Iraq in no way diminishes the sacrifices made by the 3,400-plus Americans who have died in this war that is more than four years old. Regardless of my political opinions, I honor their memory, service, courage, and the fact that they gave their lives for this country. I will say a silent prayer on Memorial Day for the families of those who grieve over the loss of a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as Vietnam, Korea, and World War II.

So if you know a veteran, tell him or her "thanks" for their service.

And to George Bush, say "enough".


  • At 5/28/2007 07:25:00 PM, Blogger Sphincter said…

    My NH hometown was much the same about parades. I can remember feeling the marching bands' percussions shake me to the core. I was at the cemetery today, and for what it's worth, there were tons of folks there paying tribute to lost loved ones--military or not. It sort of restored my faith in people.


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