There is no perfect system and every system, therefore, can be perverted, corrupted or shallowed. St. Augustine put it very well when he said that the greater a thing is, the more it is likely to be corrupted, after which, the greater its capacity for harm.
Holidays are one of those great and good things that can be corrupted, after which their capacity for harm can be great: Christmas can become just about commercialism; Thanksgiving can become just about food, particularly the turkey; Hallowe’en can become just about gore and sex. In this same vein, Memorial Day has become a second rate Independence Day, a second rate black Friday and the “official” start of the summer season (regardless of the fact that the solstice doesn’t arrive for another couple of weeks).
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a holiday that was created specifically because of the Civil War. Because the War took the lives of so many men, local towns and communities, almost immediately after the War ended, began setting aside a specific day in the year, where the entire community would gather to decorate the graves of the dead soldiers, listen to speeches and pray. The first official Decoration Day was set aside on May 30, 1868 (because that day was not the anniversary of any particular battle of the War); the brainchild of General John A. Logan, a Union veteran and the second elected national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ group made up of former Union soldiers. On March 3, 1868, Logan issued General Order #1 which called for an official day of recognition for the Civil War’s dead. On that first Decoration Day, the man festivities were carried out at the newly created Arlington National Cemetery; General James Garfield spoke and 5,000 people decorated 20,000 graves, Union and Confederate. Though Decoration Day started almost immediately after the War’s end, it wasn’t till a hundred years later, in 1971, that the federal government recognized it as a holiday; it also became Memorial Day where the net of remembrance was expanded to include not just the men killed in the Civil War but all the dead from all the wars which had involved the United States, from the Revolution to, at that time, the Vietnam War. Today, of course, the line of remembrance and the dead extends from the Revolution to the wars of the Middle East.
Rather than being about summer, or sales, or a preview of Independence Day, Memorial Day is supposed to be a somber day since it is a day that is supposed to commemorate the dead who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to our country and to us. It was with this thought that I remembered a line from G.K. Chesterton: The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. Perhaps Chesterton took as the basis of this observation the idea that the greatest thing that a man can do is to lay down his life for a friend. Who were the soldiers of the Continental Army, the Union Army, the Confederate Army, the American Armies of WWI and WWII, of their navies and now air forces? It is impossible to know each one perfectly; when we often do not even know ourselves perfectly, how could we expect to know the hearts of the dead? But, if I had to guess, I would say that many of them were men who were not looking for a fight for the fight’s sake. Until the middle of the 19th century, the vast majority of the American population lived on farms (this was true even of the North at the time of the Civil War.) They were simple but educated and knowledgeable; many might have joined for glory, at a chance to see the world, but many also joined for the love of the things behind them. The man who joined General Washington may not have fought for the Declaration of Independence; he probably did not even fight for something that was to be christened in 1777 the United States of America. He probably fought for a small piece of land that he tilled himself, still sustaining his wife and children; if he did not own the land himself, he fought for the house that stood on the land that he rented and the family that still resided there. As the colonists were wont of saying even up to 1776, they were just transplanted Englishmen and it was a principle of the English Common Law that every Englishman’s home was his castle.
The same is true of the Civil War; the men of the North as well as those of the South fought for their homes and for their own communities. Each side saw the other as a threat, needing to be defeated. Many, in our politically correct times, forget that the South genuinely thought that the election of Abraham Lincoln marked the end, not just of the Southern way of life—which did include slavery—but of the American Republic for which Southerners, such as Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, had sacrificed for. The Northerners, for their part, saw the South as trying to tear apart the fabric of their national home, of which their local communities made the pattern. They heard the echoes of Daniel Webster’s cry in the Senate, “Liberty and Union—one and inseparable!”
The men who crossed the Atlantic to fight in Europe in WWI—which included my great-grandfather—fought to make the world safe for democracy. It’s true that the slogan was dreamed up by President Wilson, and there is a legitimate debate still ongoing just how much of a threat Imperial Germany was to the United States, even after the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram. They crossed the ocean to keep their homes safe, believing that if the Germans won the war, democracy might die in darkness.
WWII—which my grandfather was a part—was more cut and dried. The Nazis and the Imperial Japanese were legitimate threats to the world. If the Axis had won the war, history would have been very much altered and not for the better. Those men fought definitely for their homes and families.
When one comes down to it, Memorial Day is about love, the love that paradoxically makes one willing to die in order to protect that which is loved. Really, it should not come as any surprise that it boils down to this, not a least common denominator but an ember, white and hot. The word “patriotism” after all comes from the Greek patrios which means “of one’s fathers” implying a familial line stretching back through history; or from history to us today. Anything of our family should, properly, be loved and one of these is our country. Memorial Day is a call to love, not just the patriots who died for us, but for us to take inspiration from them to love the things behind us.