Travelling across America, the country reveals a tapestry of contradictions. These were certainly evident in the lead up to Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday of May. In cemeteries and towns the bunting, flags and flowers come out, to remember the fallen and to welcome the beginning of summer. For some the weekend is solemn; for others it’s a holiday to herald warm weather and hot dogs (between Memorial Day and Labor day (5 September) Americans will eat 818 hot dogs per second).
The figures vary but it is certain that the most deadly wars for Americans were the Civil War (conservatively 625,000 casualties), followed by WWII (405,399). We visited the site of the bloodiest day in the Civil War: Antietam. 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on 17 September 1862. The battle led to Abraham Lincoln issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This information can be gleaned at the National Park’s visitors centre but mostly the display concentrates on the logistics of the battle.
Memorial Day originated after the Civil War (1861-1865) to commemorate the soldiers who died. The vision of the nation’s premier military cemetery, Arlington, established in 1864, is to be ‘a national shrine – a living history of freedom – where dignity and honor rest in solemn repose’. It is a vast and impressive place where more than 300,000 are buried. But its acres of white crosses sanitise the realities of war rather than explaining how the soldiers’ sacrifice contributed to freedom.
Memorial sites are impeccably kept and the tours for visitors are well organised. (Arlington receives more than three million visitors a year.) The narrative offered revolves primarily around sentiment; facts and figures can be obtained but the causes and consequences of war are not part of most spiels.
In 1910 an American psychologist (William James in The Moral Equivalent of War) offered an explanation for this reverence for the fallen:
The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party. The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals… modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.
Returning to 2016, a former Marine infantry officer and journalist Jim Michaels wrote just before Memorial Day about the loss of a relative in WWII. He told how his uncle had collected documents to preserve the memory of his brother. He concluded: ‘Remembering is all we can do.’
At Hiroshima on the Friday before Memorial Day, President Obama, on the other hand, said: ‘We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again’. Yet, the US government has just announced it will spend USD 1 trillion over 30 years to modernise and upgrade its nuclear arsenal. As Democrat Senator Ed Markey commented, the Administration ‘cannot preach nuclear temperance from a bar stool’.
In downtown Chicago on the Memorial weekend, there was a big parade in the centre of town and a fireworks display on Saturday evening, not to mention two Beyonce concerts. As people remembered the fallen and revelled in the first bout of sunny weather, not far away a fifteen-year old was shot dead, one of the victims of sixty shootings in Chicago during the Memorial Day weekend. Such are the contradictions of American life.
Photos: Arlington cemetery; a wreath at a memorial to American policemen, Washington DC.