Memorial Day

Memorial Day on Martha’s Vineyard is the quasi-official beginning of “the season,” which is to say the season of crowds, traffic, and unaffordable housing. As elsewhere in the U.S., schools, banks, government offices, and many businesses are closed. Parades are held. The cemeteries come alive with red, white, and blue. Back yards come alive with the sound of romping kids and the smell of grilling hamburgers. We are, we tell ourselves, honoring those who died for our freedoms.

The other day I snagged this cartoon off Facebook because it conveys so well my deep uneasiness about Memorial Day.

mem day cartoon

As I read it, the teacher is guilt-tripping a student for exercising a freedom that the serviceman was wounded defending. The student is tipped back in his chair with his feet up on the desk, as if he’s just being contrary.

It’s brilliant: Exercising one’s freedom is equated with dissing a wounded vet. Rote repetition of the pledge of allegiance must be a more suitable tribute.

In my lifetime the U.S. military has been more actively engaged in suppressing other people’s freedoms than in defending our own, and in any case we defend our freedoms more effectively by exercising them than by repeating platitudes about war. Conversely, we here in the U.S. are doing an excellent job of suppressing our own freedoms with no help from terrorists or anyone else’s military.

As Memorial Day approached, I found myself thinking a lot about Edward Snowden. From the beginning I was more for him than agin him, mainly because I saw him as a direct descendant of Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Only gradually, though, did I come to understand the significance of what Snowden did, which is to say the significance of what he revealed about our government’s threat to our freedoms. (If you haven’t seen Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s award-winning documentary about what Snowden did and why, I highly recommend it.)

The reaction against Snowden was a feeding frenzy. Pundits and public officials competed to condemn his action in ever more cataclysmic terms, rarely if ever grappling with what his actions revealed. No surprise there: this is our customary national reaction to anyone or anything that makes us uncomfortable. Take a look at the hysteria that followed 9/11, which hasn’t gone away. Attempts to criticize or protest any U.S. military action are greeted with rage and chants of “Support our troops! Support our troops!”

Hodding Carter III takes a hard look at the feeding frenzy, especially the media’s role in it, in “Glenn Greenwald, I’m Sorry: Why I Changed My Mind on Edward Snowden.” He applauds the “few and far between” media outlets who “pressed the print button and revealed the NSA’s dirty linen,” who “sounded the alarm, warning the American people anew of how much further down the road to an all-intrusive garrison state Washington had ventured.”

At the same time he castigates the far more numerous outlets and journalists “who twitched at every government accusation,” who saw no need “to grapple with the meaning of a government that conceived, created, and operated a secret high-tech vacuum cleaner to suck the meaning out of the Fourth Amendment.”

emperor's clothesMy favorite fairy tale has long been “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Of course I identify with the child who cries out that the emperor is parading down the street with no clothes on. Don’t we all?

But in the U.S. the knee-jerk reaction to such revelations is rage. The child would probably be dragged off her parent’s shoulders and torn limb from limb.

Or maybe she’d just be guilt-tripped for saying rude things about the nice emperor who makes her freedom possible.

So how to maintain some perspective on Memorial Day? It helps to go back to the beginning. In “Forgetting Why We Remember” (New York Times, May 29, 2011), historian David Blight reminds us that Memorial Day began in the wake of the Civil War, in which 625,000 died. “If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War,” he reminds us, “four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.” Not surprisingly, he writes, “Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement.”

Then he takes us back to Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1865, to the first commemoration of what came to be known as Memorial Day. Here’s a bit of it — but really, read Blight’s whole account.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then came a parade of 10,000, most of them black freedpeople, led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.”

Once Reconstruction ended, and white supremacy returned to Charleston, South Carolina, and the South, the event vanished both from memory and from the official record.

On this Memorial Day, it’s worth remembering.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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7 Responses to Memorial Day

  1. lloydthayer says:

    Thank you !!! thank you . thank you . thank you ………etc.
    just keep adding thank you’s……………
    for your intelligence, bravery…….(and of course for the pictures of Travy)


  2. This is important to remind us of the origins of Memorial Day. Although I knew about them I didn’t know about what happened in Charleston. Now I can see why! It’s difficult to be supportive of our contemporary wars, which have ceased to matter. They are, as you write, launched mostly to suppress freedom somewhere or increase the power of one nation above another. Although Memorial Day is different from Veteran’s Day I chose to write about one man who didn’t die at war, although seriously wounded, but whose fight did matter. This is a complex matter as there is a fine line between being overly anti military and remaining alert and aware of the danger of excessive military force. Great post, as always, Susanna. Take it easy with the new season around the corner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very fine line, as is the one between honoring those who serve in the military and uncritically accepting everything that service involves. I came of political age during the Vietnam War and was active in the antiwar movement. I and most of my colleagues listened to the words of the returning vets because they knew better than any of us what was going on in Indochina. But plenty of people did take their ambivalence about the war out on the (mostly) men who fought it. It was pretty ugly. Plenty of young people go into the military because it’s the best job option they’ve got. Thanks for commenting. Now I’m going over to check out your blog. 🙂


      • I am always angry when I see military recruitment on campuses since it becomes then an option for poorer or less motivated students. The Vietnam War was certainly the event that triggered a change in American people’s opinion toward armed conflicts. I envy your generation in a way since this movement built more awareness. Good to read you as always.


      • I’m as ambivalent about the military as anyone, but I’d like to see a return of the draft for national service, for both men and women. Options would include non-military service. I think the more privileged classes have gotten the idea that the less privileged are going to do their fighting for them, and take care of themselves when/if they come home. The mobilization against the Vietnam War happened in part because our generation — at least the male members of it — were vulnerable. I also think about how fragmented the country has become. My father was introduced to guys from all over the country, different races, different classes, different ethnic backgrounds, by his WWII service. I think that was a plus. He thought so too.


      • Although originally in favor of the draft, I tend to agree with you. When everyone was drafted there was probably less inequalities between men. Great input, Susanna.


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