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May 31, 2004
I’ve made no secret of my lack of enthusiasm for the soldiers’ holidays of Memorial and Veterans’ Day, the one for those that died in battle, the other for those fortunate enough to survive it. Either way, we privilege the place of war in our culture, while euphemizing it in terms of human valor and sacrifice. Even the language of the US Code obfuscates, invoking “prayer for permanent peace”, whereas the real tradition involves the decoration of graves, and was first formalized, in the pseudo-military form of a “General Order”, by the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans that wielded significant political power in it’s post-Civil War heyday. A century later, with the nation mired in a particularly ignoble war, the legislators who reformed the holiday schedule did not see fit to mention graves, and the corpses of Vietnam earned less honor than those of any former war.
That was not fair to the dead, for death remains death, whatever “value” we may put on it. All I remember from that time is Poppy Day, when, invoking the flowers of Flanders’ Field, the latter day descendants of the GAR made the rounds of grammar schools, and we uncomprehending children were all but obligated to offer up a quarter to purchase a wire and crepe-paper flower. Better they’d sliced the barren pod of a real Poppy, harvesting the opium ooze for easement of the eternal soldiers’ wounds… But now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, as we are once again in the throes of conflict, searching for a way out, but not yet able to admit our error. In the course of excusing ourselves we insist on the virtue of every soldier, or at least the dead ones, the “worth” of whose extinction may be presumed to outweigh the embarrassment of any possible atrocities along the way. But war consists largely of atrocity, and whether we call it honorable or odious our main desire is to put it behind us, hidden like the rotting body lying beneath the flower-strewn turf of the grave.
Memory is the root of memorial, but I’ve been happy enough to forget, insisting instead on the populist rite of passage from Spring to Summer that underlies this date. I’m not alone in this, and, given the focus of this page, it was easy enough during its first two years to focus on the seasonal shift. Or rather it was hard for me to force myself to address the official narrative within the context of the immanent one. In 2000 I found the flowers of the Tuliptree to strew, but on behalf of all of us, as I would not give precedence to the warrior dead over noncombatants slain. Not while Life makes casualties of us all. In 2001 I traced a memory from past to future through the revival of the American Chestnut tree, continuing a theme that finally bore fruit last Thanksgiving. Things were different by the next year, and in 2002 I fell back on the ancient Triad form to insist that neither war not peace are properly the object of holidays. As such, I’ve remained reluctant to concentrate on our current state of war, which seems to be ongoing. So it was that last year, even at our supposed moment of victory, I found myself turning away from the nation’s wounds to address my own.
None of us have found healing yet, but we are working on the forgetting. That’s not as easy as it might seem: one does not simply forget and have done with it; you have to keep on forgetting, lest the untoward memory return. The forgetting is as ongoing as the fighting, but as long as war remains a hemisphere away it cannot eclipse the coming of Summer.
They say that vacation travel is returning to pre-9/11 levels, our debilitating fears forgotten, or at least repressed. So the Memorial Day weekend veers once more towards the uses of the living rather than memories of the dead, oscillating with our social weather. But Summer is ever the future of the Spring, and forgetfulness is a way of forcing some sort of future out of an unacceptable past. Maybe it were better to remember, in hopes that the censure of memory might help us to forge an acceptable future, but I fear our memories are no more reliable than our auguries. The future we predict never works out quite that way, and neither did the past that we remember. Self-justification flows in both directions, issuing from our current unease.
Recalled or forgotten, our soldiers remain but dead.
Honor or dishonor is ours to bestow, but never theirs to know.
We remember what we can, and forget what remembrance cannot bear.
Summer covers the graves with green and we can only wonder whether those who there repose would rather we drape them with a flag or a picnic blanket. What was it that they won for us? The pain of a memory premature, or the luxury of a season of forgetfulness?