Reflections on Memorial Day

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2008

This weekend, we mark the 140th anniversary of the first official observation of the holiday we now call Memorial Day, as established by General John A. Logan’s “General Order No. 11” of the Grand Army of the Republic dated May 5, 1868. This order reads in part: “The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s order in fact ratified a practice that was already widespread, both in the North and the South, in the years immediately following the Civil War.

It’s hard to get Americans in this day and age to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day. Alas, for too many, Memorial Day has come to mean nothing more than another three-day weekend, albeit the one on which the beaches open, signifying the beginning of summer. Unfortunately, the tendency to see the holiday as merely an opportunity to attend a weekend cook-out obscures even the vestiges of what the day was meant to observe: a solemn time, serving both as catharsis for those who fought and survived, and to ensure that those who follow will not forget the sacrifice of those who died that the American Republic and the principles that sustain it, might live.

The sad fact is that Americans have forgotten how to honor their war heroes and to remember their war dead. As “Bing” West observed several years ago in his remarkable book about Fallujah, No True Glory, stories of soldierly courage deserve “to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deed will die.”

Things started to go awry with Vietnam. Although Americans fought bravely in that war, the press, if not the American people, began to treat those who fought in Vietnam as either moral monsters, victims, or both. The “dysfunctional Vietnam vet” became a staple of popular culture. Despite the fact that atrocities were rare, My Lai came to symbolize the entire war. Thanks to the press’s preoccupation with the anomaly of My Lai, Lt. William Calley became the poster boy for Vietnam. The honorable and heroic performance of the vast majority of those who served in Vietnam went largely unrecognized.

For instance, how many Americans know the story of Marine Lieutenant John P. Bobo, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam? Here is part of his citation:

When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines. Lieutenant Bobo was mortally wounded while firing his weapon into the main point of the enemy attack but his valiant spirit inspired his men to heroic efforts.…

The reason for this disparity in coverage is simple. My Lai fit the conventional narrative of the anti-war left Bobo’s story did not.

The Vietnam-era narrative lives on today. The conventional wisdom concerning Vietnam has been absorbed by today’s press, even those too young to remember the America’s Southeast Asia misadventure, resulting in a troubling predisposition on its part to believe the worst about those who are willing to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thus long before an investigation was complete, opponents of the war used the alleged killing of Iraqi civilians in Hadithah three years ago to apply the Vietnam narrative to Iraq. Thus Rep. John Murtha, D-PA, a vociferous critic of the war, broke the story, claiming that Marines in Hadithah had “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”

In April of 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, US Army, became the first soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives.

In his October 4, 2007 Wall Street Journal piece,” Modern Heroes,” Robert Kaplan observed that “according to LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award, [Smith’s] stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared to 4,677 for the supposed Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159 for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England.” This is nothing short of a scandal.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration bears some of the responsibility for our failure to honor the heroes and war dead of Iraq and Afghanistan. The President has publicly presented the two posthumous Medals of Honors that have been awarded for Iraq and Afghanistan, but has otherwise passed up opportunities to present Distinguished Service Crosses, Navy Crosses, or Silver Stars. This is part of an administration strategy to avoid public mention of the war. This approach is self-defeating on so many levels.

There are no doubt sound political reasons for the President to avoid the topic of the war, but the decision to do so permits the old Vietnam narrative of the American soldier as victim to roam freely in the minds of Americans. Anyone who doubts the degree to which this view of the American soldier has become institutionalized in American culture should visit the Vietnam War Memorial. Instead of evoking respect for the honored dead, this structure induces on the one hand, pity for those whose names appear on the wall, and on the other, relief on the part of those who, for whatever reason, did not serve.

In a Memorial Day address I delivered ten years ago at Newport City Hall, I asked rhetorically, why are such men as John Bobo and Paul Ray Smith willing to fight and die? I observed that in his book, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, Glen Gray provided one answer: “Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.”

It is my own experience that Gray is right about what men think about in the heat of combat: the impact of our actions on our comrades always looms large in our minds. As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in his Memorial Day address of 1884, “In the great democracy of self-devotion private and general stand side by side.”

But I suggested that while the individual soldier may focus on the particulars of combat, Memorial Day permits us to enlarge the individual soldier’s view, giving broader meaning to the sacrifice that was accepted of some but offered by all, not only acknowledging and remembering the sacrifice, but validating it.

In the history of the world, many good soldiers have died bravely and honorably for bad or unjust causes. Americans are fortunate in that we have been given a way of avoiding this situation by linking the sacrifice of our soldiers to the meaning of the nation. At the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln fleshed out the understanding of what he called in his First Inaugural Address, the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land…”

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address gives universal meaning to the particular deaths that occurred on that hallowed ground, thus allowing us to understand Memorial Day in the light of the Fourth of July, to comprehend the honorable end of the soldiers in the light of the glorious beginning and purpose of the nation. The deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg, of those who died during the Civil War as a whole and indeed, of those who have fallen in all the wars of America, are validated by reference to the nation and its founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

Some might claim that to emphasize the “mystic chords of memory” linking Memorial Day and Independence Day is to glorify war and especially to trivialize individual loss and the end of youth and joy. For instance, how can the loved ones of a fallen soldier ever recover from such a loss? I corresponded with the mother of one of my Marines who died in Vietnam for some time after his death. He was an only child and her inconsolable pain and grief put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Epitaphs of the War, verse IV, “An Only Son:” “I have slain none but my mother, She (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.” Kipling too, lost his only son in World War I.

But as Holmes said in 1884, “…grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death—of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope and will.”

By all means, have a hot dog or a hamburger this weekend. If you’re close to a beach or a lake, take advantage of the nice weather and go. But on Memorial Day, take some time to remember the John Bobos and the Paul Ray Smiths who died to make your weekend possible.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affair at the Naval War College in Newport, and the editor of Orbis. He is a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.