While I am working on another project, I am re-posting some past essays, This one is from 2010. Like then, I'll be working on Memorial Day this year. I hope you will take some time to reflect on ways we can remember past wars without instigating new ones. War always wreaks untold havoc when we unleash it.
I don’t recall much being made of Memorial Day when I was growing up. It was barely on my radar. I suppose there were Memorial Day sales, but as a holiday it was not high up on the list. Several years ago, Alison, a young colleague at work started talking about her childhood memories of Memorial Day. “I was always excited about the holiday, because I would get brand new clothes. My mamma would always take me shopping. She would tell me, ‘We were going out to get your Memorial Day dress.’ That was the big thing about Memorial Day.” She was a young African American woman talking to me and Kevin, another colleague who was white. Kevin and I looked at one another in mild amusement. We had never heard of such a Memorial Day tradition.
“You mean ya’ll didn’t get new clothes on Memorial Day?”
Kevin and I said no we didn’t.
“I wonder if my mamma was just telling me that. I sure thought new clothes were a Memorial Day tradition.”
It got to my young black colleague so that she went to another black co-worker to ask her about it. Alison returned later with a big smile on her face. "I asked Phyllis about it – she said it was a black thang.” We all three laughed about it.
That incident led me to ponder how and what we remember, and how we mark special days of observance. A quick look at the history of Memorial Day reveals the difference in how I, Kevin, and Alison had grown up observing the holiday. Memorial Day first came to be observed to commemorate Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. After World War I it became a day to honor Americans who have died in all wars. In my white southern heritage, Memorial Day had no strong observance because it was not a thing that my white ancestors would have particularly wanted to honor or remember. To our black neighbors’ ancestors, however, Memorial Day would have signified a new beginning, new hope and opportunity (even though it took 100 more years for Civil Rights to be enacted). It makes perfect sense that our black neighbors would have celebrated with new clothes for a new beginning.
How then should we observe the day in the 21st century, after so many other wars have given us so many other soldiers killed in the service of our country? On Memorial Day it is certainly fitting to remember those soldiers who have paid the ultimate price for our country. It is also fitting to be thankful for the freedom we enjoy in this country. We would be remiss, however, if we did not pause to consider the price all of our soldiers pay during wartime. Rather than glorifying the fight, we should consider what our brave soldiers actually endure. We do not honor our soldiers by holding on to fantasies about the glories of war. By really understanding what it is we ask our soldiers to do, perhaps we would not be so quick to enter into armed conflict.
Nancy Sherman of Georgetown University writes of the invisible wounds of war in an article, "What Good Soldiers Bear". The article appeared in America magazine and was written after interviews with soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well stated and insightful, I recommend the article which you can find by clicking here.
For another reflection on the origins of Memorial Day, check out this 2011 op ed piece in the New York Times, Forgetting Why We Remember, by David W. Blight.
Photo by Mark Wilson (Getty Images)