This coming weekend is Memorial Day weekend, the weekend when our war dead are supposed to be honored.
(It’s also a weekend where those who produce your favorite weekly newspaper on planet Earth lose a day of production. But you know that because you’ve already read the front page, right?)
Memorial Day’s original intent, honoring our nation’s war dead, has gone in three different directions in recent years. This weekend is the unofficial start of summer, which our family has commemorated by visiting my Grant County in-laws, including visits to the every-fourth-Saturday-of-the-month Uppena–Kroepfle American Legion Post 473 steak fry at the Legion Bar in Potosi, and the Glen Haven Fire Department Catfish Fry the Sunday of the weekend.
Memorial Day has also morphed into a second Veterans Day, as well as the U.S. equivalent of the Day of the Dead, the Latin American holiday honoring ancestors. (In both cases, though Memorial Day weather is the most iffy weather of the three-day weekends, weather in late May is usually better than weather in November.)
Many of my wife’s relatives are buried at Hillside Cemetery in Lancaster. The cemetery in Boscobel is where my grandmother is buried. Resurrection Cemetery in Madison is the burial site of my older brother, who died a month shy of his second birthday, two years before I was born. (Our oldest son is named for him. My parents never had the opportunity to say things like “Michael! Get to bed!” or “Michael! Clean your room!” or “Michael! Stop picking on your brother!”)
Resurrection is also the final resting place of a Madison contemporary of mine, comedian Chris Farley. Chris was a year ahead of me in school, though we went to two different Madison high schools. I think our paths crossed at a high school football game, where he played offensive and defensive line and I played trumpet.
Those who died defending our country will in fact be honored in this area Memorial Day. (See page 1 for the details.)Those ceremonies are one of many demonstrations that those who live in small towns seem much more rooted in reality and traditional values than the big-city elites.
This weekend makes one think what this nation’s military dead died for. (Including Army Sgt. Jesse Grindey of Hazel Green, who died March 12, and Army Spec. Jakob Roelli of Darlington, who died Sept. 21.) “They died for our country” is the obvious answer, but what does that specifically mean? Joseph Campbell defined a hero as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,” which our military dead certainly did.
In the case of this country, “something bigger” isn’t only the flag or something that symbolizes our country; it’s all the things, great and small, that make up our way of life — our right to make a living the way we want, to live where we want, to express opinions about the state of things (for instance, this week’s letters), and to express ourselves in other ways — even something as seemingly mundane as three-day weekends. That’s why I don’t have a problem with what Memorial Day has become, as long as we remember the original intent of Memorial Day.
You can argue the merits of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a present or past war in which a member of your family or someone you knew died serving our country. The idea, however, that war is something that can be eliminated if we just all resolve to get along assumes that human nature can be defeated, and that there’s no moral difference between sides. Would pacifists be pleased with a country where the southern third of it owned slaves and no one did anything about it because all viewpoints, even a viewpoint that approved of enslaving human beings, are valid? Would we have been better off just letting Nazi Germany execute its concept of “lebensraum” (“breathing space” in German, Adolf Hitler’s excuse to grow Germany’s borders before World War II began) because that was Europe’s problem and not ours?
John Stuart Mill wrote that “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
Or, put another way by my favorite Founding Father, Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
Another of my favorite observations about war and the war dead is a poem written by Jack Buck, a Battle of the Bulge veteran and went on to a long career in sports broadcasting. (Among other games, Buck called the second half of the Ice Bowl for CBS-TV. His son, Joe, is the lead NFL and baseball announcer for Fox.) The elder Buck wrote this poem after seeing visitors to the cemetery in Normandy, France, who were less than solemn:
They chatter and they laugh as they pass by my grave
And that’s the way it should be.
For what they have done, and what they will do, has nothing to do with me.
I was tossed ashore by a friendly wave
With some unfriendly steel in my head.
They chatter and they laugh as they pass by my grave
But I know they’ll soon be dead.
They’ve counted more days than I ever knew
And that’s all right with me too.
We’re all souls in one pod, all headed for God
Too soon, or later, like you.