Monday, May 29, 2017

Rembering the war dead, and the complication of memory

Today is the holiday for Memorial Day, the day on which the United States officially honors the American dead in its wars.

The President gave a teleprompter-ed speech for the occasion, which meant he seems to have stayed on script and didn't insert and egotistic asides. President Trump takes part in Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery PBS Newshour 05/29/2017. I selected the embed to begin at 30:00, which is when Trump's speech starts.

James Doubek explains the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day in Don't Say 'Thank You For Your Service' This Monday NPR 05/28/2017:

As most people are aware (or should be), Memorial Day and Veterans Day serve different purposes.

Veterans Day is to honor the service of people who have worn the uniforms of the armed forces.

Memorial Day is intended to remember those who died while serving. ...

Shortly after the Civil War, Memorial Day began as Decoration Day. "The reason for that is because it was a day on which Americans, South and in the North, would decorate the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War," history professor Matthew Dennis told NPR in 2005. It was a "vernacular, grassroots kind of expression of mourning."
Most Memorial Day notices on social meeting tend to range from the mundane to the maudlin. That doesn't mean they are not well-intentioned or not heartfelt.

It's just that general expression of mourning, ones that aren't attached to specific people, inevitably have something of a superficial sound. We saw an example of this during the many mass shootings that happened during the time of the Obama Administration. The safe political thing to say was, "My thoughts and prayers are with the victims," or some variant of it. At some point, "thoughts and prayers" coming from a political figure after a mass shooting started to sound to many people like, "I don't care about this, not really. And my donors from the firearms industry want to sell more guns."

Decoration Day/Memorial Day came after the Civil War. But Lincoln's classic Gettysburg Address is a model of dignity in expressing sorrow and respect for fallen soldiers without sounding maudlin:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
What's missing from so many general tributes to fallen soldiers, including Trump's today, is the "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." The concluding moments define that "unfinished work" in Jacksonian fashion, in defending and developing democracy and freedom.

I don't know how common this is for such speeches. But Trump's highlighted a widow and the parents of a deceased soldier and told stories about their lost loved ones. It was pretty much exactly like the tributes that St. Reagan introduced into the State of the Union address and subsequent Presidents continued. It struck me as showy and odd in such a speech.

It's entirely understandable that today we continue the age-old habit of honoring the sacrifice of those who die in war for the tribe, the nation, the king, the country. War is the worst habit of humanity. But it's a deep-seated one. And every society has to have a narrative of honor and appreciation to acknowledge this sacrifices. And encourage those who are called upon to risk life and limb in the next war.

But a large piece of "unfinished work" of humanity, including the American segment of it, is to create a situation of enduring peace, in which eventually frees anyone and everyone from having to make the kind of sacrifice we honor on Memorial Day.

But returning to the American context, honoring the dead in war is problematic still. And because of the Civil War. After the Civil War, white enemies of American democracy in the South, made honoring of the Confederacy, its soldiers and its honored dead part of what New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently called "the Cult of the Lost Cause." ('The Confederacy lost and we're better for it': New Orleans mayor USA Today/WWL-TV New Orleans 05/24/2017)

Rituals honoring the war dead are all political, in the sense that they deal with the needs and requirements of a political community. But it's easy for honoring the dead who perished in a dubious or bad cause to shade over into honoring the bad cause in itself. Or, in the case of the neo-Confederate narrative, the latter can dress itself up as the former. Landrieu in his speech was addressing the issue of Confederate monuments:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This 'cult' had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. [my emphasis]
He mentioned here specifically Lee, Davis and Beauregard, who were important and emblematic figures in the Lost Cause mythology and in the real Civil War. And they led people to fight and die in a treasonous war against the Constitution and democracy.

Its necessary to distinguish between the ordinary recruits who do the fighting, killing and dying and the policymakers whose decisions sent them to war. During the Civil War, it was common for soldiers to select lower-level officers by vote. But the soldiers even then didn't get to vote on whether to undertake a specific battle. And they aren't individually responsible for the decisions made by decision-makers who decided to secede from the Union and start a civil war.

Soldiers, whether drafted or volunteers, are there to service the collective good. And there is a general understanding that they deserve respect for playing that role.

But we should never allow the makers of bad policies, or those who start unnecessary wars, to hide bad and irresponsible decision behind the honor and respect of the public for the service of soldiers.

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