Before Memorial Day became a national three-day weekend in 1971 and the official kickoff to summer festivities, it was Decoration Day.
I’m not all that ancient, but my earliest recollection of the holiday is of the latter name. It was a day on which people brought flowers and flags to graves of the war dead, and maybe held a parade featuring some tottering old vets and their strange hats.
One also might be stopped by an elderly gentleman selling a poppy. Not a real poppy, but one made of crepe paper. This somehow had to do with the whole thing as well, but exactly how I didn’t know. That mystery was cleared up in fifth grade, when our poetry-forcefeeding teacher (see this) made us memorize the poem “In Flanders Fields:”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place…
The poppies had to do with mourning for the dead, this much I knew, and the poem related to a huge battle of World War I, a war that was never given much attention in our American history classes (I had to learn about it on my own, later). Like much of the poetry we learned in grade school, the poem isn’t good poetry; it’s really propaganda verse. But as such it gets its message across loud and clear.
That message is of loss and mourning for the war dead, true enough. But the larger message is that they died for a reason, and the corollary is that mourning then is an empty exercise if it doesn’t take account of the context of their sacrifice and follow through on it:
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…
Call it jingoistic, call it hawkish, call it simplistic. But it points out something I’ve been thinking of this Memorial Day, and that is that although mourning the loss of the war dead is absolutely part of the day, that’s not the same as honoring them.
There’s enormous disagreement on how best to do this “honoring.” Some think protests at Memorial Day parades is the best way to “support the troops.” Some (and I am among them) agree with President Bush when he said in a Memorial Day speech at Arlington: “Our duty is to make sure this war was worth the sacrifice.” And part of that process is to continue to have the will to do so, and to change tactics when necessary and give a new approach time to work.
Yesterday I saw a special on Fox News about a group of 80-something WWII vets returning to the beaches of Normandy where they had landed on D-Day. One of the things that caused these tough old guys to tear up as they gazed at the now-tranquil sands of Omaha was speaking of the memory of their comrades who had died all too young on those beaches. The other was receiving the tributes from the locals, including young people who had no personal memory of the terrible ordeal that was WWII. One of the vets waved his hand at the group of smiling children and said that this, this was why we did it.