Memorial Day 2019 (4 of 4): History matters, especially on Memorial Day.


There are long, long trails a-winding …

… through places like France.

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery

With headstones lying in a sweeping curve, the 42.5-acre Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in France, sits at the foot of Belleau Wood. The cemetery contains the graves of 2,289 war dead, most of whom fought in the vicinity and in the Marne Valley in the summer of 1918. The memorial chapel sits on a hillside, decorated with sculptured and stained-glass details of wartime personnel, equipment and insignia. Inscribed on its interior wall are 1,060 names of the missing. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. During World War II the chapel was damaged slightly by an enemy shell.

Belleau Wood adjoins the cemetery and contains many vestiges of World War I. A monument at the flagpole commemorates the valor of the U.S. Marines who captured much of this ground in 1918.

Respecting the memory of American soldiers who died while in the service of their country is a task perhaps best undertaken with respect for history.

Speaking only for myself, I take it very seriously. It’s a habit of thought almost certainly springing from my father’s fascination with far-off events that conspired to transport a hick from bucolic Georgetown, Indiana to the Pacific Theater of Operations — and in his case, back home again.

Others weren’t as lucky, and every year on Memorial Day, I pause to reflect on the serendipity of it all.

As a prelude to Memorial Day, there tend to be scolding social media reminders to the effect that Americans fixated on holiday feasting, partying and recreation somehow dishonor the nation’s military heritage. To be sure, I contribute my fair share of rants about the general populace and its chronic ignorance of history.

However, I don’t think honor and bacchanalia are mutually exclusive concepts. After all, the venerable institution of the wake combines them very effectively, and what’s more, the human condition is incapable of sustaining a permanent state of mourning. Life does go on.

Like the vast majority of topics pertaining to human beings, the notion of dying for one’s country is inordinately complex. John Gonder once touched on it during a conversation, when he mentioned the notorious escape clause during the American Civil War, where men drafted into the Union Army could buy their way out of service by paying $300 or providing a substitute to serve (and sometimes die) in their place.

During the Vietnam War, songwriter John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival noticed it, too: Exactly how is it determined who risks dying for his or her country, and who subsequently profits from their deaths?

Dick Cheney might know the answer.

Preferably, respecting the memory of American soldiers who died while in the service of their country is a task best undertaken with a respect for history on the part of those still living, along with sadness and regret that human civilization seems not to have evolved to a point of no longer requiring violence to settle issues. War is a ridiculous concept, although humans seem enamored of it.

It’s also a holiday weekend, and I suspect you are enjoying it.

Carry on, then.

Memorial Day (Snopes)

Claim: Former slaves reburied dead Union prisoners of war in May 1865, thus creating the modern observance of Memorial Day.


TRUE: In May 1865, free blacks in Charleston reburied dead Union prisoners of war and held a cemetery dedication ceremony.

UNDETERMINED: The event referenced above is the origin of the modern Memorial Day observance.

Wikipedia’s article goes into greater detail.

Memorial Day 2019 (1 of 4): Howard Zinn asks, “Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?”

Memorial Day 2019 (2 of 4): Charles Ives, from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.

Memorial Day 2019 (3 of 4): “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.”

Memorial Day 2019 (4 of 4): History matters, especially on Memorial Day.