Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering Our Dead

The airmen

As a first-generation American growing up in Florida as part of a small Catholic ghetto, I have no childhood memories of Memorial Day. Back then the population of the state was about two percent Catholic. That bit of demographic trivia sank in at the time because it explained why I knew every single “Catholic” house on the streets I walked between home and school; such knowledge was just part of the experience of being ‘different’.

The nuns who taught at our school were evenly divided between off-the-boat young Irish women and native-born Americans. The latter were more at ease and often less harsh. The former were often scared, and they suffered horribly in those black wool habits. Looking back, I am in wonder at the level of their courage.

The priests in our parish were another matter, though: Irish immigrants, every single one of them. Our monsignor was originally from Dublin and he personally traveled to the seminary in Maynooth to recruit many a newly minted priest for work in Florida. I’m sure he painted a rosy picture while leaving out the most salient fact. So when August arrived, those poor fellows often became quite sick when high summer lay like a weight over all of us (air conditioning as an assumed ‘right’ didn’t arrive until I was in high school).

[My mother endured her own trial by fire when she arrived in Florida, straight from Canada in late May and eight-plus months pregnant with me. Conceived in Toronto, born in Florida — I would still prefer Canada. By the age of ten, the weather and intellectual climate seemed so abysmal I was already considering how to get out of Dodge. I knew we could never afford college (and no one told me about scholarships), thus the only other way over the fence I could imagine was marriage to a nice Yankee. Which I did on turning twenty.]

We never avoided Memorial Day commemorations — being part of America was important — but since this one fell outside the boundaries of the school year there were no opportunities for the nuns to put us to work making iconic flags or memorizing relevant poetry for the occasion.

As I recall it wasn’t an observed holiday where my mother worked, either. Her boss was from Lebanon and he barely looked up for Christmas, much less something as nebulous as Memorial Day. Thus Mother never felt deprived of something she’d never known. Had it been a big deal in Florida, she’d have made sure we went through all the rituals and ceremonies — becoming an “American” was forefront in her mind when it came to our education.

[St. Patrick’s Day was another story — and a big conflict with the Boss from Beirut. With two children to support there were lots of things Mother gave up without complaint, but properly celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t one of them; she simply didn’t show up for work on March 17th. Instead, she took a bus to the city to attend noon Mass and reminisce a little with Monsignor Meehan about “home”. From there she walked to a restaurant she’d frequented back when she worked in town. In those old days she’d never minded working on St. Paddy’s. She could attend Mass easily enough, and her co-workers always made sure a favorite local restaurant served corned beef and cabbage. For many years afterwards, that same restaurant always featured C&C on the menu. Instead of a check for her meal, the owner would, with great ceremony, present Mother with a small pot of shamrocks to take home.]

Yes, yes, I know. This is supposed to be about Memorial Day. I’m getting there. Trust me…

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It wasn’t until I moved to New England that the day appeared on my family calendar, along with others such as Patriots’ Day. But even there it had a different tone than it does today. My in-laws, along with many other families, took the last Sunday in May to clean up the graves of their dearly departed. My father-in-law, whose people originally came from further north, told me the original name for this was Decoration Day. He thought the particular day — last Sunday in May — was originally chosen because by then the weather was likely warm enough to allow for spending considerable time outside cleaning up the accumulated detritus of the previous year. Dead flowers were removed, headstones were scrubbed, and the immediate areas around the graves were planted with fresh annuals or vines. Thus the nickname for Vinca minor — “cemetery vine”.

The gradual change from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day” began in the North after the Civil War. So many families lost their sons to preserve the union of the states — the numbers of new graves given over to those young men were a startling reminder of how many had perished in battle over the span of four gruesome years. The Union lost more soldiers in all — 360,222 — but the total casualties for both sides have remained greater than all our other war deaths beginning with the Revolutionary War and going on through Vietnam — somewhere between 650,000 and 700,000 all told.

The majority of those killed in battle were young. In other words, we often lost “the best and the brightest”. We lost fine young men who would never marry or sire children. War levels and reduces the strength of any country’s gene pool, and given the relative size of the losses in the Civil War (comparing them in toto with the size of the population at the time), we clearly damaged our genetic heritage.

On Memorial Day we are once again reminded of the cruel irony of Arlington Cemetery. It began as a hasty potter’s field for the Union dead near Washington D.C. The decision to establish this place on the immediate grounds of General Robert E. Lee’s home was deliberate. The strategy, bodies next to the rose bushes, was a psy ops move: surrounding an old and cherished estate with the poorest of the Union dead — those soldiers whose families in the North could not afford the fees required to have their sons carried home by train — was designed to humiliate. This is also true of the destruction of the forests and outbuildings of General Lee’s home.

In time, Rebel soldiers’ remains came to be interred at Arlington, but their final resting places were permitted no show of honor. In fact, there were explicit instructions to “ignore” these graves during ceremonial occasions. The ignominy was so pointedly mean-spirited that most families of those Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington removed their sons’ remains to safer grounds.

Anyone who has been to Arlington Cemetery knows how vast it is, but the average TV viewer watching some wreath-laying ceremony has no idea of its history, or that it goes back to George Washington himself. We don’t teach our children history any more, so America’s cultural, institutional memory is becoming ever more denuded and poverty-stricken. And that’s how some people want it.

Arlington Cemetery is a monument to the brutal expenditure of so many bright futures. All the men who never returned home, all the families that never got made, all the inventiveness and intellectual energy buried there is an incalculable loss for our country, and for anyone who might have benefitted from what these men never had the chance to create, invent, build, or solve.

Look at that picture at the top of this post. It is an image from the Pacific theatre in World War II It is a photograph that grabs my attention. I study it sometimes, trying to grasp what it meant to those boys. Hungry most of the time, scared to death, and a million miles from home. So young, so brave and so irretrievably lost.

War is more than merely “hell” — it is a demonic destruction of the future. No, I’m not a pacifist. Yes, there are worse things than dying. But like any Monday morning quarterback, I have unanswered questions for those officers who seemed to sacrifice lives to their own ambition.
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There is something we can do, however small our recompense to the dead. I hope our readers will chose one of these projects as a way of paying attention to the future:

If you know of other groups (I lost the list I’d collected last week for this post), please leave a comment or send an email. I’ll add yours to the list.


babs said...

My father was a pilot in the Pacific theatre. I looked at the faces in that photo on the off chance that it might have been my Dad. He was 20 when he got his wings. He said that flight training consisted of the following:
Fly from the Army Air Force base on the East coast to somewhere in the mid west. If you make it, fly on to the West coast. If you make it, fly on to Hawaii. If you make it, fly to some island in the Pacific. If you make it your flight training is complete!
He piloted a weather surveillance plane. Not terribly sexy but, they went in first to check the weather for attacks.

Malcolm Smith said...

Here in Australia, we commemorate the war dead on Anzac Day, 25 April. I visited Gallipoli in 1980, and the average age on the gravestones was 21 or 22. Here are a few statistics from World War I:
Male population: 2,2 million.
Enlisted: 400,000
Went overseas: 300,000
Dead: 59,000

vince said...

All of this seems alien to someone living in England. Its fascinating stuff. The sad and disgusting thing is all those who lost their lives, all those young men who never had a chance to live their lives, defending something greater than themselves.

And nowadays people will just happily roll over. Appeasement never works.

Just watched an amazing video on vlad tepes blog, with a reworked speech by ronald reagan. Very relevant today.

Dymphna said...

@ babs-

I'm no longer sure of the provenance of that photo. I know at least one of them was from our county in VA. When my son did his Eagle Scout project - an oral history of the remaining veterans here from WWII - one of them gave him the photo and the Baron restored it.

Did your Dad ever tell you how often he and the other fliers went hungry? At best they were haphazardly supplied, depending on local edibles - fish and such - when they could get them. Potable water could be in short supply,too.

Thus extreme hunger and severe thirst were constant companions.

A woman I know still cries when she reads the journal her father kept until his death at sea. His plane went out one morning & never returned. As usual, he left with an empty stomach and she believes to this day that living on the edge of starvation was the indirect cause of his death. The knowledge of his suffering from hunger still haunts her...

Dymphna said...

@ Malcolm Smith-

Are those stats just from Oz??
@ Vince -

I don't understand your sense of this being alien. I'm curious - alien in what way? John Derbyshire wrote a moving essay a few years back on the numbers of English women after WWI who lost all hope of ever being able to marry because of the severe shortage of available men. He described their lives, ageing slowly in cramped shared bed-sits, their very English stoicism permitting some cover of dignity over their deep but unspoken sorrows. By the time he was aware of them they were old and not within his sphere of understanding. It was only in looking back that he could see their loss.

babs said...

@ D
My Dad said very little of the living conditions he experienced in the Pacific theatre. One thing he did say was that they bathed in DDT to ward off insects.
My Dad died at 63 years old and I often wondered if DDT had something to do with it.

vince said...

@dymphna: Sorry should have specified. What feels alien, is the sense of national identity and patriotism. The US has waves upon waves of immigrants seeking a better life, and their stories on becoming american are fascinating.

It something that growing up in multicultural Britain, that has appeared absent, and is somewhat absent in our physche.

I mean I guess in a sense The US was the prime example of a multi cultural success story. For example I imagine the varying immigrants must have had very different customs. Assumingly because most of the immigrants were of European descent there would have still been some universal and accepted norms and values.

Im not too clued up on American history. But I did do a unit on american politics at school. I just remember the teacher banging on about small things such as the fact that they have flags flying outside their homes and buildings. Over here Its been reported in the news, of councils forcibly removing peoples flags outside their homes.

I have visited new york many times, and regardless of peoples colour or ethnic origins, the majority of the populus I met all seemed to carry that New york spirit. Which comically for me is a mixture of stubborness, defiance and bordering rudeness, well if you ever ride the subway!

Seems in Britain, whether its our past, our military even wealth. Seems we have been made to feel ashamed of everything.