Remembering and Forgetting On This Memorial Day

Adam Cohen has a very thoughtful piece in today’s New York Times which explores the way in which we as Americans have chosen to remember Memorial Day.  Cohen cites a few passages from David Blight’s Race and Reunion which references the ceremonies held by black Charlestonians in the months following the war to honor dead Union soldiers:

In “Race and Reunion,” his masterful book about historical memory, David
Blight, a professor at Yale, tells the wistful story of Memorial Day’s
transformation — and what has been lost as a result. War commemorations, he
makes clear, do not just pay tribute to the war dead. They also reflect a
nation’s understanding of particular wars, and they are edited for political
reasons. Memorial Day is a day not only of remembering, but also of selective
forgetting — a point to keep in mind as the Iraq war moves uneasily into the
history books.

Many of the early Memorial Day commemorations, Professor Blight notes, were
like Charleston’s, paying tribute both to the fallen Union soldiers and to the
emancipationist cause. At a ceremony in Maine in 1869, one fiery orator declared
that “the black stain of slavery has been effaced from the bosom of this fair
land by martyr blood.”

Less than a decade later in 1877 — when Reconstruction ended in the South —
at New York City’s enormous Memorial Day celebration, there was much talk of
union, and almost none of slavery or race. The New York Herald declared that
“all the issues on which the war of rebellion was fought seem dead,” and noted
approvingly that “American eyes have a characteristic tendency to look forward.”

Cohen ends his piece with a few thoughts about the ultimate price of our selective memory in the context of the war in Iraq.

When Memorial Day began, the war dead were placed front and center. The
holiday’s original name, Decoration Day, came from the day’s main activity:
leaving flowers at cemeteries. Today, though, we are fighting a war in which
great pains have been taken to hide the nearly 3,500 Americans who have died
from sight. The Defense Department has banned the photographing of returning
caskets, and the president refuses to attend soldiers’ funerals.

Memorial Day also began with the conviction that to properly honor the war
dead, it is necessary to honestly contemplate the cause for which they fought.
Today we are fighting a war sold on false pretenses, and the Bush administration
stands by its false stories. Memorial Day’s history, and its devolution,
demonstrates that the instinct to prettify war and create myths about it is
hardly new.

But as the founders of the original Memorial Day understood, the only
honorable way to remember those who have lost their lives is to commemorate them
out in the open, and to insist on a true account.

With no end in sight in the war in Iraq I admit to finding it very difficult to reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day without getting incredibly frustrated and sad.  My frustration is bound up in the conviction that this government has abused and needlessly sacrificed so many talented and patriotic Americans.  Last night I watched a special 60 Minutes episode which followed an Iowa National Guard unit, along with their families, during their deployment in Iraq.  As the guardsmen prepared for deployment one soldier expressed his confidence that his elected leaders in Washington must fully understand what they are doing.  We now know this is simply not true.  In fact, anyone who chooses to look must come to the conclusion that this is one of the most incompetent administrations in recent history.  And the price of this incompetency is the 3,500 Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice. 

Memorial Day celebrations give us an opportunity to honor the service of all American military personnel regardless of the war in which they fought.  On one level this seems appropriate and perhaps on one day a year it is even necessary to do so.  However, in doing so we lose an opportunity to ask the tough questions at the very moment when our collective gaze is focused on the wars that this nation has chosen to fight.  Questions about the necessity of this war and the way it has been conducted from the highest levels open painful wounds because they force those willing to look to ask whether any given example of sacrifice was necessary.  In his new study of Nixon and Kissinger, historian Robert Dallek summarizes the consequences of the mistaken assumptions that led and kept this nation in Vietnam for so long: "It was a lesson in the heavy price nations pay when their leaders are held fast by unrealizable hopes that morph into illusions." (p. 134)

As a citizen of this country I feel an obligation to acknowledge the sacrifices and acts of heroism on the battlefield and the home front.  At the same time I also have an obligation to ask whether those acts were necessary and meaningful – beyond the description of the acts themselves.  That acknowledgment and need to inquire into the necessity of it all creates a great deal of tension.  This year I am finding it very difficult to balance on the one hand the selfless behavior and sacrifice reported daily out of Iraq with the utter incompetence of this present administration.  They don’t deserve this military. 

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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