It is Memorial Day, the day we are supposed to remember those who died defending their country. It is startling to think we did not have a Memorial Day before the Civil War, meaning there was no official acknowledgement of the dead of the Revolutionary War, those who died to make the later Memorial Day possible, or the War of 1812, when the new nation and Britain went at it again.
But after the Civil War, in 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a veteran’s advocacy group was founded. In 1890, this group had half a million members. It served the Republican Party and fought for black voting rights, and pensions for Civil War veterans, among other things.
It is thanks to the Grand Army of the Republic that we have Memorial Day. General Order No. 11, of May 5, 1868 declared May 30, because it was not already the anniversary of any battle, to be “Decoration Day” – the day when the graves of the war dead were decorated with flowers. The term “Memorial Day” did not come about until 1882, and this name was not made official until 1967.
Though we have treated our war dead variously, just as we have treated our living veterans, we have never hesitated to make more. We have already seen how John McCain celebrates Memorial Day, by calling for more war dead in pursuit of endless war in the Middle East, the graveyard of so many empires.
It is axiomatic that those most eager to convert young men and women into corpses are not those volunteering to do so first hand, which ought, perhaps, to be a warning that their advice is not to be listened to. Perhaps old people ought to have no say. Perhaps only the element of personal risk induces humans to think soberly about death.
Published before his own death in World War I, of pneumonia, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, looks at the making of war dead first hand, and so, perhaps, ought to be required reading on Memorial Day:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae was a doctor. He wrote In Flanders Fields on May 3, 1915, after his friend Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres.
In “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote another sort of poem, the soliloquy of one of those who fought a different sort of war, in one of the new-fangled flying machines soaring over the trenches, dueling with their foes like the knights of old. If it seemed ennobling from afar, there was nothing glorious about those wood and canvas coffins and the lack of parachutes.
Yeats’ airman wonders, as he prepares to take what he knows will be his last flight, why he is fighting. It is believed that Yeats wrote this poem for his friend, a pilot, William Robert Gregory, who was accidentally shot down by an allied Italian pilot.
I know that I shall meet my fate,
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
We memorialize and politicize the dead. Up close and personal, from where McCrae sat overlooking the wrecked field, it was more personal. For McCrae, if it “sacrifice” it was also, as he described it, “nightmare”:
“For seventeen days and seventeen nights,” he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
This sort of scene is not something we should aspire to. War for McCrae and for Yeats was something intensely personal. They had fought in war, lost friends in war. It was personal for those hundreds of thousands of Union veterans in the G.A.R. who fought not only for the memory of their sacrifice but for the life they thought, rightly, was owed them.
We ought to think more like that on Memorial Day, on a personal level, and of life as much as death, for these men and women had their lives stolen from them, for causes that are not always righteous, fighting wars that ought not to have been fought.
They have, as Lincoln said, given their “last full measure of devotion,” and we should give ours to see that they are not sent to die for profit or to make some ideological point or another, but only when our freedom and our families are truly threatened. After all, we have but one life to give, and we ought to act like that life means something, even when – especially when – it is not our own.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.