The tradition that we have come to know as Memorial Day grew (as many people already know) from the Civil War Era. It became common practice to set aside a day to decorate the graves of all of those who had fallen in battle. While many assert that this tradition began exclusively as a Confederate observance, there is evidence to support that similar occurrences began in the Northern states about the same time (circa 1865). Since then, the United States The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day", which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after WWII, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.
However, my purpose in this post is not to provide you with a history lesson (despite how valuable and informative as one might be). Rather, my Memorial Day Musings began with a topic that is quickly becoming one of my favorite research topics, nationalism. While I plan on saving most of my thoughts on nationalism for subsequent posts, the main interplay of nationalism in this post will be in relation to national symbolism, with the military being as much of a symbol in America as a flag or hearing the national anthem. My thoughts on this subject began on the Sunday before Memorial Day with a video that was shown in my regular church service. The link for that video may be found here. It is a very moving video entitled "I Fought For You." Many in the service were moved to tears by the video and I must admit I was stirred as well. Especially after my recent experiences reading the wonderful work, With the Old Breed, by E.B. Sledge (a WWII memoir of his days in the Marine Corp during the battles at Peleliu and Okinawa) I deeply appreciate those that (to quote Lincoln) "laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom." I profoundly believe that we owe a great deal to those who have fought against tyranny and oppression in the name of our American democratic ideals.
Yet, the plot thickens. The next afternoon a favorite song of mine came across my iPod as I was listening to music in my car. The song was written by the lyrical genius Bob Dylan and is titled, "With God on Our Side." In this song, Dylan is alluding to the seeming futility of war and the notion that God is always on our side even though often both sides of an armed conflict are appealing to the same deities for assistance (this phenomenon is even documented by Homer in The Iliad). After hearing this song, I was left to wonder whether the pride I take in supporting our military and in celebrating a day like Memorial Day is really just a regurgitation of my nationalist conditioning or is there something more substantive under the surface.
We so often support and pray for the brave men and women who are fighting for our country. Yet, I wonder what the reason is for this. Are we truly saluting the men and women or the idea of militarism? Even more pressing is the question of whether these same men and women are really fighting for our ideals. As a youth, I often dreamed of being in the army and fighting for my country and defending our democracy, but I thought back to the book by Sledge and can't help but think that those men were thinking a lot more about mere survival against an enemy than and idealistic purpose for their being thousands of miles from home.
While I do not often say so openly for fear of persecution, I often get perturbed on our national holidays at those who literally wear their patriotism on their shoulders. I am sickened by those who the extent of their patriotism is wearing a shirt with an American flag on the front or flying a flag from their SUV as they drive down the street. Such blind adherence to an abstract nationalism that has no substance for its followers is essentially anti-American in my humble point of view.
Yet, the conundrum with which I was left was whether I was engaging in the same sort of activity for which I so often criticize others. I've already said that I believe that we owe a great debt to those who have served in our military, especially during wartime, but is this statement merely more nationalist propaganda or is my statement truly representative of something deeper. Lincoln apparently believed so as do many others, but I am still left wondering if there is an important distinction to be made between my appreciation for our veterans and the shallow surface patriotism that I so deeply despise.
While a surface patriot and myself both hold the Constitution on a pedestal, I like to think that I do so because of the ideals and rights that it represents and not as a mere symbol. We might both be moved to tears at the sight of the Vietnam Memorial and still honor the lives lost, I can't help but also associate a degree of needless death with that same sight. Although we might both get the same sense of pride from singing our national anthem, in my mind, my criticism of our government is as patriotic (if not more) than his blind disobedience. I think of the works on fascism by Mussolini that I have read and console myself that my support of our "state" is much different from that but I am starting to see many parallels the more I research the topic or ponder its implications.
It is for this same reason that Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" as a disgusted response to "God Bless America." Yet, this and many of his subsequent actions got him blacklisted by Joe McCarthy.
Perhaps the worst part of all of these musings is that I have yet to find any resolution or consolation. I still wonder if there is any way to maintain my love for my country and support of our veterans yet in a way that can still oppose a war in which those same veterans fought or criticize the government of my same country. Many would claim that they do this very thing every day, but my concern runs more deeply. I desperately want my feelings to be something genuine and substantive but wonder if it is all "fruit of the poisoned tree" because it might be initially based on pure nationalism. In any event, I'm not sure that I will ever find the peace of mind on this subject for which I am hoping.
But until such a day might come, God bless you for reading and God Bless the United States of America.
Yours as always,
- The Apprentice Philosopher
*I'd like to clarify the title of this piece to avoid any confusion. One might make a valid observation that today is not Memorial Day. In fact, Memorial Day was several days ago. However, this is meant to be musings about Memorial Day and things that crossed my mind on that day rather than something that I wrote on that day. This may be a minor distinction, but it is one that I thought worthy of making.