After the bloodiest and most divisive war in American history, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic instituted the holiday at Arlington Cemetery in 1868 "For the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."
Though many states in the south refused to observe Memorial Day fully and continued to honor their Confederate dead on a separate day, the entire country adopted the day after World War I as a day to honor soldiers fallen in any war. Since a Congressional act in 1971 the last Monday in May has been observed as a national holiday in nearly every state, ensuring a three day weekend.
In lieu of my own memorializing of the war dead, I offer my peonies and my past two posts for this day:
Monday, May 31, 2010
Singing the Warriors Back
Last week I got the usual slew of chain emails with all the pithy reminders to honor our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. I also saw many Facebook status updates with the admonitions that our liberties have all been gained with blood. On Saturday morning, I had the honor of attending a three-hour benefit for Insight LA, an organization that promotes and teaches mindfulness classes. I sat with one very good friend and six hundred other people inside of a beautiful church and listened to Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist who trained as a Buddhist monk and is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He regaled us with hysterically funny stories, led us through some profound sitting meditations and kept us all rapt for the entire three hours. But it was his story of an ancient Irish warrior that struck me, especially as it pertained to Memorial Day. The warrior returned from successful battle still filled with warrior rage, with the wild and burning success of rampage, so heightened that his fellow villagers knew that he couldn't stop, couldn't begin to be normal, again, without help. First, all the women of the village lined up in one great long line and bared their breasts. That slowed him down. Second, they caught the warrior and dunked him into several vats of freezing cold water. Third, they tied him up and sang him back to the present.
Jack then closed this story (which got some rippling laughs) by asking Who will sing to the warriors of Iraq and Afghanistan? Who will sing the hundreds of thousands of them back?
And now, either I'm lazy or I'm on a roll with re-posting. This is from the same day, last year, and remains true on this day, this year, for me.
MONDAY, MAY 25, 2009
I always feel conflicted on these holidays -- the national ones where we're supposed to feel patriotic, full of honor, all those things. I have made no sacrifice for my country and have, actually, often despaired of my country. I struggle to feel the "right" way about soldiers and those who have died "for our country."
I do remember this poem, though, by Wilfred Owen. I remember reading it in high school from my white Norton Anthology. I remember feeling horrified. I remember wondering what sort of man Wilfred Owen might have been had he not died in a World War I battle when he was only 25.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.