May 28th, 2007

Memorial Day: mourning the war dead, honoring the war dead

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.

16 Responses to “Memorial Day: mourning the war dead, honoring the war dead”

  1. The Anchoress » Blog Archive » Memorial Day: “Americans will die for freedom…” Says:

    [...] to my Milreaders A soldier writes a letter to the press Old Broad says Honor Them Neo-neocon on honoring and mourning Thoughts on the hell that is [...]

  2. …a kind of moral instruction… at Amused Cynic Says:

    [...] fine Memorial Day commentary, from my latest new favorite blog: …although mourning the loss of the war dead is absolutely part of the day, that’s not the [...]

  3. gcotharn Says:

    Thank you. This day is about honoring noble service in a noble cause. Some mourning will occur, naturally, in the margins. Jesus wept. Yet, weeping is not the foremost design of the day. The day is designed to honor noble service given in noble causes.

    It is their loss that many Americans can perceive either few or zero noble causes. It is their loss, it is our loss, and it is specifically a loss to those whom this day honors. It is especially a loss when our nation’s media skews the day’s meaning: away from honoring, and towards mourning. It is a loss, and it is detestable, and it is actually dangerous for the health and the future of our nation.

    I don’t want to seem high and mighty, for I am not. I sin every day, repeatedly. I make poor choices. I take actions which are unhelpful to myself, my neighbors, and my nation. Yet, it is fair to call attention to the media skewing of the intent of Memorial Day. It is fair to call attention to the actual harm this does our nation, over and above whatever disrespect it does for our past and present military forces. I do not wish to be a harpy about this – yet it remains a fair point, and I do wish to call attention to it.

  4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Says:

    “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

    This is a very odd comment. Suppose that a war is commenced, based on incorrect assumptions which at the time of going to war were not understood as incorrect. However, with the progress of the war, it becomes clear that the assumptions were, in fact, incorrect. In such a situation, continuing to “have the will” to prosecute the war isn’t honorable — it’s just stubborn.

    This logic leads to the mindset that more lives need to be sacrificed just so that the lives sacrificed earlier can be justified. As I hope is clear, this leads to an infinite loop and the war becomes never-ending. At any point, one can call for more sacrifices to justify the x number of lives sacrificed already. A month passes by and, say, y more lives are sacrificed. One can then call for yet more sacrifices, to justify the (x+y) lives sacrificed to that point. Where does one stop? This is the logic of insanity.

  5. alphie Says:

    Don’t expect a rational explanation, TMNT.

    This war is all about “faith.”

    Either ya got it, or ya don’t.

  6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Says:

    NY Times, May 28, 2007
    As Allies Turn Foe, Disillusion Rises in Some G.I.’s

    BAGHDAD — Staff Sgt. David Safstrom does not regret his previous tours
    in Iraq, not even a difficult second stint when two comrades were killed
    while trying to capture insurgents.

    “In Mosul, in 2003, it felt like we were making the city a better
    place,” he said. “There was no sectarian violence, Saddam was gone, we
    were tracking down the bad guys. It felt awesome.”

    But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in
    the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this February when
    soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the
    bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in
    the Iraqi Army.

    “I thought: ‘What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said
    Sergeant Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the First Battalion,
    325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys
    that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at
    night and try to kill us.”

  7. stumbley Says:


    At least we have faith in something. I have faith that you might someday actually realize the sacrifice that has been made on your behalf by people you scorn, vilify and don’t really know. Now that’s faith. Same for you, TMNT.

  8. alphie Says:

    I don’t scorn them, stumbley.

    I have faith that one day they’ll realize their sacrifice was only made for people who wouldn’t let them in their houses, though.

  9. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Hey, Alphie. I served 69-71. The no-houses types were, and are, the lefties.
    At best, we would be thrown some equivalent of a Gainesburger and told to stay in the back yard.
    So stuff it.

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    This isn’t about logic, this is about events. Because logic is just a way to be wrong consistently.

    David Weber has covered almost all the versions of boondogle wars that is possible in his genre, I have no need of additional theorists theorizing about things they cannot get right if only because they cannot synch it with reality.

  11. alphie Says:


    The “lefties” aren’t exactly on board for America’s latest questionable war.

    And while some Americans are getting very wealthy from it, I don’t think the people actually fighting this war are making much.

  12. sergey Says:

    “It’s easy mock at uniforms that guard you when you sleep”. True then, true now.

    Two years ago President Bush visited Moscow to take part in celebration of 60th anniversary of Allies victory in WWII. He gave a reception in US embassy and invited Russian veterans of this war. It happenned so that one of the invited was my father, in days of war leutenant, commander of mortar battery at Karelia front line. I have a foto of this event: my father and Bush shake hands, at background of Russian and American flags. A 9 May this year, at Victory Day celebration, my wife, I, our sons and daughters visited him in his near-Moscow country house, and he, dressed in his war uniform, with decorations, described us his long war biography. He was very lucky to return from this unbelievable slaugher, even unwounded. From his age cohort, born in 1924, only 3% survived the war. 97% perished; the whole nubmer of killed was 27 000 000. (Compare with 2 mln Germans killed at Russian front.) He also wore on his uniform a memorial medal given to him by Bush.

  13. stumbley Says:

    You know what, alphie?

    I’d rather have a whole battalion of Iraq veterans in my house than one snarky yokel like you. Interestingly enough, this weekend, while in our local theater, when the National Guard promo trailer came on, there was actually scattered applause…from young people. That’s why I have faith that we will survive in spite of people like you.

  14. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    TMNT — getting into war as a mistake does NOT justify making the mistake of getting out of the war to leave behind genocide.

    Bush noted in his 2003 pre-war speech, 4 reasons for going to war. If you don’t know what they are, YOU ARE IGNORANT. You should at least educate yourself, like read his speech, about why we went into war.

    But even if all 4 reasons were wrong, that’s a sunk cost mistake. Yes, those killed in the past don’t justify more deaths. What justifies more deaths, or more dollars, is the alternative.

    Why don’t you think of the alternative? Why don’t you write something like:
    “I support ending the (US part) of the Iraq war — even if it means all our Iraqi allies are murdered, even if it means genocide of most Sunni Arabs in Iraq, even it means new Killing Fields”.

    Is this really what you favor? In Vietnam history, it really WAS what the anti-war Left favored — but they were ignorant or dishonest about their “anything is better” alternative.

  15. Lee Says:

    Lib Dad,
    And so is Alphie. When he talks about fighting for people who wouldn’t let them in their home, he was talking about himself, because the soldier represents honor and duty, which Alphie loathes, since he lacks those things himself.

  16. Sofia Vergara Says:

    Hi there…Man i love reading your blog, interesting posts ! it was a great Thursday . Sofia Vergara

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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