In one local newspaper this past week, in a section called Streetalk, the roving reporter asked several people what they believed is the purpose of Memorial Day and whether they felt it is a meaningful holiday. All three of the people interviewed associated the holiday on some level with remembering those who died in military service, but in all three cases their own observance seemed, if not completely disconnected, at least muddied.
One woman responded that her grandfather was a P.O.W., a prisoner of war. He was shot down, she said, somewhere in Asia and to this day he won’t eat rice. Her dad was a vet, she told the reporter, his best friend was killed in Vietnam and her brother was named for him. So, she said, it means a lot to her, because of her family history. She said she planned on calling her father and grandfather. And then, she added nonchalantly, that she also planned to go to Universal Studios, because she had a long weekend and had never been to Orlando. There it is, your typical contemporary Memorial Day. A three-minute phone call followed by a three day mini vacation.
Hollywood is counting opportunistically on the tie-in, however thin, between this holiday weekend and war memories, as virtually the only new movie opening is Pearl Harbor, the $135 million Disney studio epic.
In a 35-minute sequence of the movie, the events of that day are vividly and violently reenacted, the sudden horror of the unprovoked attack on the sleeping Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii that led, finally, to our involvement in World War II. More than 3,000 American men and women died that day, more than a thousand of whom are still entombed in the Battleship Arizona, unable to be rescued in life or death.
Veterans of Pearl Harbor who were given a special preview viewing of the movie before the official opening on Friday had mixed reactions, some saying it was completely realistic, some hoping it would renew patriotism, some hoping it would remind people of the chaos and death, one veteran saying that he thought that the attack in the movie took much longer than the actual attack, some admitting that they no longer can remember in that much detail what happened to them and others on that Sunday morning in December nearly 60 years ago.
But for anyone coming in or out of Dahlonega the past few days, it would be hard to forget that tomorrow, the last Monday in May, is Memorial Day. And that it has something to do with war and death. Not just that first summer weekend we celebrate with cook-outs and camping trips, but Memorial Day, a day to remember people killed in American battles.
Red, white, and blue crosses dot the sides of the highway and circle the town square with the names of military men and even some women and the wars they were involved in: mostly World War II, some in Korea, and quite a few in Vietnam.
Little white crosses by the roadside are pretty familiar sights around these parts, decorated with mementos and flowers, some real, some plastic. They usually mark the places where, as we have come to euphemistically call them, traffic fatalities have taken place.
Often teenagers who have been killed in these deadly car crashes, ones they have been innocent victims of — or ones they have directly caused by drinking too much or driving too fast, or often both.
No matter once they have died, because now that they are gone, they are loved still and missed always, and needing always to be remembered. Even after the wooden crosses weather and crumble and the flowers wither and die.
I was thinking how this is also so for those who have been killed in wars, declared or otherwise, justified or otherwise. Sometimes they have been the perpetrators and sometimes the defenders, some of them doers of unspeakable and unforgivable deeds, and some relatively few of them have been undeniably evil.
But for the most part, both because of and despite what they did and how they died, they have been mourned and missed, their deaths somehow marked, and for a time anyway, remembered. Because they were connected to a particular human family and a particular human community or nation.
One story goes, that the beginnings of what is now an official federal Memorial Day was the spontaneous acts of women, wives, mothers, grandmothers of men who died in the American Civil War. In the aftermath of battle, in places like Gettysburg where thousands upon thousands were maimed and killed, the women came behind, women from both sides of the battles, to mourn and to remember their dead loved ones by placing flowers on their graves.
In fact, it is impossible to know exactly when and where this day of memorial, originally called Decoration Day, began. There are, in fact, over two dozen cities and towns that claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. While Waterloo, New York, was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Johnson in 1966, there are southern towns that insist they held the first observance, organized southern women’s group in particular who say they did it first and remind us that they decorated only the graves of their Confederate dead.
And there are, as we know, those sons and daughters of the South who still boycott the national observance and maintain their own Confederate Memorial Day.
It was only after World War I, when the ranks of the American dead in this new war swelled, that the battle, as it were, over separate Memorial Days cooled down some. As boys and men from both North and South, indeed East and West, alike, went to war in Europe, died, and needed to be remembered.
Again in this war, this first Great World War, where instead of thousands, millions died, 8.5 million military deaths in all, the central symbol for loss and memory on the battlefield in the presence of the dead was not the flag of one country or another but, again, a flower. A natural and universal marker:
John McCrae, a Canadian doctor who fought on the Western Front in 1914, and who died like so many others, not from a bullet, bayonet, or bomb but from disease, wrote:
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row
that mark our place, and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing fly,
scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders Field.
For many, this poem has become negatively associated with the romanticizing of war and a hyper-patriotism that does not fit with our distaste for, even opposition to war and our dislike for the nationalism that so often leads to war. Or perhaps it is simply because for some it is associated with the kind of rote memorization of readings that spoiled any love for poetry forever. For me, looking at this poem afresh after many years, I read in it a sensibility in the midst of battle that is subdued, even ironic. And certainly universal.
Because the poet does not name a particular Dead. Neither dead Canadian, American, English, French, or German soldiers. They became simply The Dead who had lived and were loved. And in their death, whatever the stated cause of the battle or war they died in and for, became something much simpler and smaller:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
to you from failing hands we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
we shall not sleep, though flowers grow in Flanders field.
Grand causes, burning battle cries become in death, quarrels only.
In 1915, a safe distance from the actual fighting and bloodshed, American writer Moina Michael crafted her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
that grows on fields where valor led,
it seems to signal to the skies
that blood of heroes never dies.
While the Canadian officer who wrote the original war poem about poppies on a battlefield — and who lived and died in a war himself — did not call the Dead either heroes or villains, Miss Michael felt impelled to assume and perpetuate the notion that all American soldiers lived and died valiantly and heroically. There is something in the understatement and wistfulness of the poem about Flanders Field that speaks to me instead of a faith that must be kept with soldiers that has much less to do with going on to victory in their memory than in remembering them as individuals, fully human and imperfect individuals who were caught up in something that is not always, in fact rarely, as simple as heroism. Whatever meaning was to be found in their deaths on that foreign battlefield, he seems to be telling us, was more complicated than that.
There are seldom moments in history on the face of it as unambiguous as that Sunday in Pearl Harbor, an attack so one-sided, a death toll so lopsided, or a response so justified. Our human, and specifically our American, history of battle and war is full of the more common combat situations of either ambiguity, complication, or outright wrong.
Several of our younger members took me to task last Memorial Day Sunday when we recited the numbers of war dead only in terms of our own military men and women, not the others who died, including civilians. They also reminded me that there have been times when we slaughtered our own — including the Native Americans — and times we massacred innocent women, children, and old people. Count them too, they told me.
Why, of course.
Because if we are to remember Pearl Harbor and honor our war dead there, we must also remember places like Wounded Knee.
Remember the morning of December 29, 1890, when the Sioux chief Big Foot and some 350 of his followers camped on the banks of Wounded Knee creek. Surrounding them was a force of U.S. troops charged with the responsibility of arresting Big Foot and disarming his warriors. The army was frightened and incensed by the Ghost Dance movement, a mysticism preached by a Piute shaman named Wokova who urged the Indians to dance a special dance, a Ghost dance, that would herald a new world where, joined by the dead, they could live in the old way, surrounded by plentiful game and invincible to the bluecoat, the soldier’s bullets.
After killing Chief Sitting Bull, the army surrounded the Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation and in a volley of bullets massacred more than 300 men, women, and children. Twenty-five soldiers lost their lives.
Who knows what manufactured hatred, fear, inexperience, and confusion led to this massacre, or how many women, Indian and White, laid flowers and other remembrances on the graves that followed.
This month, the same month when Pearl Harbor was released on big screen, Bob Kerrey, a former United States senator who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his military service in Vietnam, acknowledged in the face of a New York Times investigation, that a combat mission he led there three decades ago ended in the death of 13 to 20 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.
While during the war he received a medal for his outstanding courage and presence of mind in the face of the enemy, Kerrey today admits that for the past 32 years, he has been haunted by the incident which won him his award.
He has said that mission he headed, which was to capture a Vietcong leader who was supposed to be in a particular area of the Mekong Delta, led to firing on a set of hooches or huts, filled, they discovered afterwards, with civilians, women and children. Others have said that the villagers were rounded up and shot after it was determined that the soldiers did not feel safe either by releasing them or taking them prisoner.
Whatever really happened, and there are more than several different accounts, it was not a hero’s encounter, and Senator Kerrey himself has now said, “This is killing me. I am tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”
Kerrey has said that what has held him together now, in the face of the revelation of what actually happened and the disrobing of his hero’s mantle, has been the reaction of his own son and daughter, who are just about the age he was when he went to Vietnam.
He has said that they have told him, “We still love you.”
Mercy, he has said, is a powerful thing to give another person. Love can be healing.
Bob Kerrey never was and no longer will be labeled a war hero, except by those who insist in the face of all we now know that the war in Southeast Asia was unavoidable and justified and winnable. But his role, as horrible perhaps and at least as flawed as it was, will not have been in vain.
Or the deaths of all the others who have gone before us, if it forces us to remember. Remember well the pain and suffering they both suffered and brought upon others, remember well the families, and towns, and nations who have suffered the loss of what might have been the fullness of their lives.
It had been a long time since I sang or recited the words to a song that was popular even before the depths of the Vietnam War, sometime in the middle of the Cold War and all its little and bigger wars that kept coming and have kept coming still. And suddenly this year when I saw all those red, white, and blue flags and tiny crosses along the roads and around the square, but no flowers marking them. I found myself repeating:
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone, gone to graveyards every one.
When will they, when will we, ever learn?
Oh when will they, will we, ever learn?