The origin of Memorial Day was the commemoration of Union deaths after the Civil War, a conflict that cost between 618,000 and 700,000 lives in a nation with a population of less than 32 million. The South had its Confederate Memorial Day, still marked in some states of the old CSA. As this warrior republic, crusader nation has racked up more wars, Memorial Day has added these deaths to the holiday.
Newspapers will again run photos of small flags planted in front of the tooth-like marble gravestones of the war dead. But if ever there was an argument for a "sunset provision" to holidays, Memorial Day is it. Even the deaths of ordinary civilians are observed. Commercialized, trivialized and a venue for cheap patriotism, Memorial Day has been drained of its somber meaning. For most Americans, it is just another day off, another long weekend, the start of summer.
The disconnect is worse than ever. We've been through a decade of war and everybody "supports the troops." But our wars are fought by a professional military whose values are, in both good and dangerous ways, cut off from the mainstream of the country. The ideal of the citizen soldier is gone. This way went Rome.
We fight undeclared wars without asking for sacrifice from the general population. When these conflicts result in high debt and deficits, a potential majority of "consumers" will vote for a party that proposes solving the fiscal problem by eliminating help for the poor, privatizing Social Security, eradicating Medicare, selling the public schools to the highest sleazy bidder, generally shredding the social compact and destroying the commons. It's easy to "support the troops" or let wars paid for by borrowed money from the Red Chinese drag on for years, when you don't have any skin in the game. That skin includes even paying attention. What are our aims in these wars? In this massive Military-Industrial Complex?
The remains of teenage boys stare up out of the ground into the sky of Gettysburg, Normandy, the Punchbowl on Oahu and hundreds of other places. Our cause has sometimes been just, sometimes not. But it is impossible to walk these lawns consecrated by the blood of our fellow citizens, sometimes our relatives, and not be deeply moved. Yet we the living are no longer dedicating ourselves to the unfinished work of the American project, that all men are created equal. We are no longer citizens, but "consumers." Among the things we most love to consume is war with, or so we think, no consequences. One can't contemplate this without fearing a terrible reckoning.
Paul Fussell, soldier, writer, critic and historian, would love the irony, for he was a high student of such. He died this week at the age of 88. Every literate person should eventually read his magnificent The Great War and Modern Memory. You might have seen him as one of those interviewed for Ken Burns' The War on PBS. Despite all his accomplishments, beneath his name it simply said, "Infantry." Fussell was a Ph.D., an English professor at Rutgers and Penn, a highly influential writer, but most of all an infantryman. He served as a rifle-platoon lieutenant in World War II — average life expectancy six weeks — and was forever changed by the crucible. His was not a Good War or a Greatest Generation. He despised the "Norman Rockwellization" of the war and its sanitized version sold to a gullible public.
I find I’ve given the Second World War a uniformly bad press, rejecting all attempts to depict it as a sensible proceeding or to mitigate its cruelty and swinishness. I have rubbed readers’ noses in some very noisome materials—corpses, maddened dogs, deserters and looters, pain, Auschwitz, weeping, scandal, cowardice, mistakes and defeats, sadism, hangings, horrible wounds, fear and panic. Whenever I deliver this unhappy view of the war, especially when I try to pass it through a protective screen of irony, I hear from outraged readers...
Even when I write professionally about Walt Whitman or Samuel Johnson, about the theory of comparative literature or the problems facing the literary biographer, the voice that’s audible is that of the pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator.
I will leave you with two of Fussell's best articles, here and here. One point he makes toward the end of The War is that it would be immoral to forget the sacrifices made. But we're just not into sacrifices any longer, unless it's the other person, preferably poor, minority or immigrant.