The Meaning of Memorial Day
Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States, one of two annual commemorations of the service and sacrifice of the U.S. armed forces. This Memorial Day, there is more sacrifice to remember: 1,647 American fatalities in Iraq, 144 in Afghanistan and 40 more in other battlefields of the war on terror, from Uzbekistan to South America.
These Americans have not fallen alone: Britain, Poland, Ukraine, Spain, Bulgaria, Denmark and Slovakia have shed blood in Iraq; Canadians and Australians have died in Afghanistan. Iraqis and Afghans have fought and died in defense of their countries against terrorism, as have Israelis, Filipinos and police and military forces in many Arab countries.
Indeed, hardly once in all the century since America emerged as a great power have Americans fought a war without allies and friends: alongside Australians, Koreans and New Zealanders plus of course Vietnamese in Vietnam; alongside 30 United Nations contingents in Korea; as part of vast global coalitions in the two World Wars.
This history makes it difficult for non-Americans to understand and appreciate the military sacrifices of the United States. From the perspective of many Europeans and many in the British Commonwealth, it can often seem that when it comes time to fight, the Americans show up late, suffer only a portion of the hardship—and then claim all the credit afterward.
Canadians are perhaps especially vulnerable to this form of resentment, and not without cause. In the spring of 1994, U.S. president Bill Clinton asked the British military historian John Keegan for advice on his speech on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Keegan offered three suggestions. Number three was: “Don’t forget the Canadians.” It’s advice that is all too often necessary.
And yet it also seems to me that when non-Americans grumble at the way Americans remember the past, they are grumbling less at Americans’ forgetfulness of others than at Americans’ remembrance of themselves.
In no other modern country does the military play the role in national consciousness that it does in the United States. The difference is neatly symbolized by Monday’s holiday. In Britain, France and Germany, as well as in Canada, the great occasion of memory is Nov. 11, the anniversary of the First World War armistice. In Australia and New Zealand, it is April 25, Anzac day, the anniversary of the doomed landings at Gallipoli. In all these places, the theme of the day is mourning and grief for loss. (Indeed, Nov. 11 is formally known in Germany as “the national day of mourning.”)
Memorial Day has its themes of mourning and remembrance, too. But it carries other messages as well. The holiday originated spontaneously in the spring of 1865. Women’s auxiliary organizations north and south gravitated to this last weekend in May as a day to decorate the graves of soldiers on both sides with flowers and wreaths. “Decoration Day,” as it began, was as much a day of national reconciliation as it was a day for grief. And more than reconciliation: for as the pain of the war faded, Americans north and south together laid aside their diverging memories of the civil war’s causes and united in accepting the war’s achievement as, in the words of that great Confederate sympathizer DW Griffith, “the birth of a nation.” Loss and triumph, death and more splendid rebirth: That is what Americans remember on the last Monday in May.
It is this last point that marks the difference between Memorial Day and the pompous May 9 “Victory Day” celebrations in Russia. On the anniversary of the surrender of German forces to the Soviet Union in 1945, the masters of the Kremlin fill Red Square with military symbols of their power: massed infantry, tanks, rockets. Vladimir Putin did it again only three weeks ago. But these muscle-flexings by the ruler of the moment broadcast a series of unintended but profounder messages: that the strength of the Russian state lies in its hardware, not its ideals; that force, not consent, is the basis of the state; and that rulers and ruled are separated by a distance as vast as that which separates the leaders on the reviewing stands from the dehumanized blocks of marching infantry far below them.
The solemnity of Memorial Day, by contrast, is always leavened by the anarchic populism of America. It is the day when motorcyclists roar across the Memorial Bridge to the Vietnam Memorial in downtown Washington in their “Rolling Thunder” parade; when tens of thousands of American families in their RVs gather at Arlington Cemetery; and when car dealers and hardware stores merge patriotism and hucksterism into a combination as American as the churches and strip joints on an American highway.
Since 1776, the survival of freedom in the world has depended again and again on the strength and success of the arms of the United States. Memorial Day recalls these sacrifices of the past—and summons Americans to the new sacrifices that the defense of freedom will demand in the future. It is a day of remembrance and a day of renewed commitment. It is a day to be honored by all those who are, have been and will be protected by the strength of the American republic.