In Memoriam

The best documentation suggests that Memorial Day began as a holiday commemorating the deaths of Confederate soldiers following the end of the Civil War. The only other substantial claim on the holiday is by the black community of Charleston, SC, which in 1865 created a memorial honoring the black prisoners of war who died at a camp at Charleston, and were buried there in unmarked graves.

With the increasing militarization of the American culture, the significance of celebrations of military commemorations has become downright fetishistic. Talk of sacrifice is dominated by people who have not made sacrifices and, indeed, angrily reject the notion that they should be expected to sacrifice. “Sacrifice” has become the domain exclusively of members of the military. These sacrifices explicitly take place during armed conflict.

Armed conflict is not glorious. “Sacrifice” here is a euphemism for pain, suffering, and death. For those who don’t die, there remain memory, grief, and loss. Combat is hunger, cold, jungle rot, fear, — as someone put it, “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” It’s death by suicide, vehicular accidents, malfunctioning ordnance, “friendly fire.” Normal, ordinary men commit atrocities in armed conflicts — massacres, rapes, brutality, murders. As I heard a combat veteran say in an interview, “If you don’t hate war, you’re a bad soldier.”

I see a direct correlation between the fatuousness of modern American society and the increasingly rancorous, strident “celebration” of holidays like Memorial Day. Around the country, thousands of communities have days memorializing fallen soldiers. These commemorations have been going on since the days of the Civil War. No government decree was required for these local memorials to be created and to take place. Disembodied heads pontificating about “sacrifice” on broadcast networks have no relation to these commemorations. Most of these talkers will not be attending any actual ceremonies of commemoration. They’ll be BBQ’ing or watching sports or the Indy 500, getting stoned on alcoholic beverages, having forgotten the “sacrifices” they’d been so sententiously bleating about earlier.

This excerpt from Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War captures the horror. Look around your neighborhood, look at your TV, and ask yourself how many of the big talkers of “sacrifice” would stand in this firing line.

Battle of Wilson’s Creek

Few of the romantic preconceptions as to brilliant maneuver and individual gallantry were realized. Fighting at close quarters because of the short-range Confederate flintlocks and muzzle-loading fowling pieces, a regiment would walk up to the firing line, deliver a volley, then reload and deliver another, continuing this until it dissolved and was replaced by another regiment, which repeated the process, melting away in the heat of that furnace and being in turn replaced. No fighting anywhere ever required greater courage, yet individual gallantry seemed strangely out of place. A plume in a man’s hat, for example, accomplished nothing except to make him a more conspicuous target. Nor did the rebel yell ring out on the banks of Wilson’s Creek. There was little cheering on either side; for a cheer seemed as oddly out of place as a plume. The men went about their deadly business of firing and reloading and melting away in a grim silence broken only by the rattling crash of musketry and the deeper roar of guns, with the screams of the injured sometimes piercing the din. Far from resembling panoplied war, it was more like reciprocal murder.

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