The State has many ways to impress itself upon our consciousness. One of these is through granting us days off from work on what we quaintly call “holidays.”
The word “holiday,” of course, comes from “holy day,” and while the word “holy” once referred to the caring, loving, and all-powerful God, it now primarily refers to its replacement in the modern mind: the caring, loving, and all-powerful State. Although we celebrate now Christmas with avarice and Easter with sugar – two of the worst things you can put into your mind and body – they at least have their origins with God and with commemorating the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Thanksgiving, too, began as a religious holy day but was used politically by Abraham Lincoln in the terrible year of 1863 and, through yearly presidential proclamations since then, has continued as a quasi-religious state-declared and sanctioned “holiday” which Americans celebrate by eating as much as they possibly can. New Year’s Day is purely heathen and would perhaps not be celebrated if it were not a week after Christmas.
The other five major “holidays,” however, come totally from, and concern themselves solely with, that State which, in its benevolence, power and wisdom, provides days free of work and toil (but with pay!) for its beloved Employee People – especially needed and appreciated in this secular age in which not even Sunday any longer provides that day of rest and contemplation.
This Monday, Americans are told by the calendar and by the State to celebrate Memorial Day. While apparently free to disregard their memory on all other days of the year and concentrate as usual on getting even fatter as we watch yet another rerun of “Friends,” on this one day we are asked – very gently, of course, since the day is mostly to mark the beginning of summer – to reflect upon the (mostly) men who have “given their lives” that you and I might “be free.”
Memorial Day has its roots in the War Between the States. It began as a way of honoring those who, according to General Order #11 of the Grand Army of the Republic, dated May 5, 1868 , “died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.” By 1890, all Northern states observed Memorial Day, but the South resisted until after the First World War, when the emphasis changed from the War Between the States to all wars fought by the United States government. Eight Southern states continue to have a separate day on which they commemorate those who died fighting the Union Army. While Americans once celebrated this holiday on May 30, that date of the first one in 1868, they have since 1971, at the State’s insistence and with its blessing, celebrated it on the last Monday in May: the State’s way of giving the people their sacred 3-day weekend.
It all seems pretty straight forward on the surface, doesn’t it? Is such a day, such a commemoration, not both fitting and just? But let’s look closer. Let’s examine and question the words I’ve emphasized by putting them in quotes. So often – too often, perhaps – we take the meaning and implication of words for granted.
We often use and hear the phrase “gave their lives.” But did these men indeed give them? Perhaps. In some cases, maybe. But I think a more accurate description is that, by and large, those lives were taken from them, and often taken in unimaginably cruel and undoubtedly violent ways. During wars, men butcher one another and leave the battlefield covered with blood and brains and once-living flesh. I rather think that very few of the dead, while they may have on some abstract level been willing to die, actually wanted to die. After all, as General George Patton said in a 1944 speech to his men, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
You can logically question, then, whether they gave their lives. You cannot, however, question the fact that they died. You then need to ask: For what did they die? The common responses are “so that we might be free,” or, as the 1868 proclamation put it, that they died “in defense of their country.” And that, in turn, leads to the question of what all that means. What does it mean that “we might be free”? How you do define “defense”? More importantly, perhaps: How do you define “country”?
The general of the “Grand Army of the Republic” who issued that original 1868 proclamation was referring directly to what he called “the late rebellion” (itself an interesting choice of words). The War between the States occurred because several Southern states had withdrawn their consent to be governed by people in Washington DC . Now while Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence clearly says that government “deriv(es) its just powers from the consent of the governed,” apparently Abraham Lincoln thought that signing the Constitution superceded that – that consent once given could never be withdrawn – and he went on to prove his point by raising an army to invade the Southern states which had left the Union and to crush not only the governments the people there had instituted for themselves but also the people themselves and their spirit of defiance and independence, as demonstrated amply by the words and actions of General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Union Army.
Did men die in that war to preserve freedom? Objectively, and ironically, it was quite the other way around. As H. L. Mencken wrote of Lincoln ’s Gettysburg Address, “It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination – ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people’ should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg ? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States.” The men butchered during this war died “to save the Union”: in other, more accurate words, they died to preserve the Federal government’s power – they died in a successful effort to subdue and conquer people who no longer wanted to submit to the wishes, the demands, and, most importantly, the power of strangers in Washington DC. And, as ever in politics, it was superior power that won out.
And has the freedom of the individual American been threatened by any of the foreign foes the Federal Government has gone to war with in the 140 years since it consolidated its power over all of what Jefferson called in the Declaration the “Free and Independent States” (please note the plural)? Did Spain threaten our freedoms in 1898? Did Germany in 1917, or even in 1941? Indeed, did Germany ever attack the United States ? Yes, Japan attacked a naval base on an island 2000 miles from California seized 50 years earlier by the United States, but did it represent a real threat to the freedoms of people in Iowa, say, or Vermont? Did Korea or Vietnam or Iraq ? If so, how? Those broken and shattered Iraqi bodies laying strewn in bloody pieces all over that devastated land: Were those people threatening you and me? That American boy bleeding slowly to death in that benighted Cradle of Civilization because McDonald’s wasn’t hiring and he needed a job: Is he “giving his life” right now to “defend our freedom,” or to further fatten Dick Cheney’s friends at Halliburton and to further tighten the Federal grip on our collective throat?
Oh, I will indeed observe Memorial Day on Monday. I will indeed remember the dead. I will think about how they died, and where – and why. And I will honor their lives and their memories as best I can: by working toward reducing the chances of others joining them in those brutal, cold, eternal graveyards.
Won’t you join me?
Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.