2004-05-28

With Malice Towards None

For most of my life I, like many Americans, was somewhat hazy on the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  The best I could come up with was "Memorial Day is for the dead veterans, and Veterans Day is for the live ones."  It was never clear to me whether veterans who survived war but died as civilians qualified for Memorial Day.  Most Americans honor all veterans (and, later, policemen, fireman, and similarly para-military civil servants) on both days, and everyone is satisfied.

Nevertheless, I’ve always held Memorial Day in somewhat lower esteem.  It lets itself be displaced to accommodate the first long weekend of the summer.  It is more readily associated with race cars than with remembrance.  It conspires with Flag Day (a truly idolatrous holiday) to incite stores to display forests of Old Glory for eight weeks prior to Independence Day.  Veterans Day, on the other hand, remains steadfastly on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, is stoically observed in reliably inclement weather, and resists all merchandising strategies.

Veterans Day has its origins, of course, in the end of the First World War, as a poignant post-Victorian gesture of resolve that the worst of the Twentieth Century should have been behind us.  Its nigh-ubiquitous observance in Western nations dampens the embers of nationalistic resentment that are otherwise endemic to war memorials.  As with many other internationalist attachments, the United States was slow to embrace Armistice Day (as November 11th was first called and still remains in Europe), but when we did, we meant it.

It is telling of my relative disregard that only recently did it occur to me to inquire into the origins of Memorial Day.  In so doing, I answered another question I hadn’t realized I had: which holiday is most suited to commemoration of the American Civil War?  When I was a lad in Tucson in the 1970s, every Independence Day the local historical recreation society put on a mock Civil War battle at a nearby park (Arizonans cannot decide whether they look up more to Texas or to Florida, which is reflected in the fact that the Confederacy won approximately two-thirds of the battles).  Despite its proximity to the anniversary of Gettysburg, however, Independence Day is too laced with (multiple flavors of) irony to decorously commemorate the Civil War.

Unlike some other nations, the United States does its best to bury unpleasant chapters of history.  While we may remember and note the dates and events, we do not observe Antietam Day, Vicksburg Day, or Gettysburg Day.  We do not even really celebrate Emancipation Day or Appomattox Day; the former reminds us of promises broken, while the latter constitutes the kind of triumphalism that America, at its best, abjures.

On 05 May 1866, the citizens of Waterloo, New York, closed their shops and decorated the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers in the town cemetery with flowers and wreaths, calling it Decoration Day.  Two years later at Arlington National Cemetery, Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan proclaimed 30 May to be Memorial Day.  Emphasizing reconciliation, the ceremony honored fallen soldiers from both the Federal and Confederate armies while affirming all of them to be victims of a national tragedy, that nation being the restored Union.

Sadly, many communities in the South continue to observe (on various dates) Confederate Memorial Day.  I consider this practice, like flying the Confederate Battle Flag, to be completely within their rights while nonetheless utterly disgraceful and disrespectful.  Just as I would argue against flying the Stars & Bars over government buildings, I contend that segregating Confederate war dead from the rest of American memorial services obscures the resolution that all Americans should take from any commemoration of the Civil War: that our common humanity and mutual liberty are the noblest causes for which our countrymen may give their lives.

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