Honoring The War Dead
By James Donahue
Today is Memorial Day, the
first national holiday of the summer throughout the United States. It was called Decoration Day when I was a young lad. It
was always held on May 30, the day marked to honor the war dead by Civil War hero General John Logan, when he served as commander
of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868.
The idea was for flags to be placed on the graves of all of the fallen heroes in hometown graves,
and for some kind of public observance to be held in the cemeteries.
It was always an exciting time for me and my friends because
Decoration Day always marked the beginning of summer vacation time from school. In our hometown we always had a parade. The
high school band, the local veterans groups, and just about anybody else that wanted to march got to be in the parade through
the town. We kids used to decorate our bikes with red, white and blue crepe paper streamers and sometimes had little flags
taped to our handle bars when we rode in the parade.
The parades always ended at the cemetery where the town dignitaries, representatives
of the veterans groups and local clergy got up on a podium and gave speeches. That was the boring part of the affair for the
youngsters because we did not have an understanding of the solemnity of what the day was all about.
Those were the years when just about every
town had soldiers from the two great wars and the Civil War buried in their cemeteries, with surviving friends and relatives
still living. For them, the act of visiting their graves and remembering them as heroes was important.
World War II was, technically,
America’s last declared war against a foreign enemy. The war machine we built during that conflict, however, was still
in place, and the stage was set for constant warfare, whether Congress voted to send troops into battle or not. Thus we were
plunged right into the Korean War, followed by the Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also endured the
long Cold War years with nuclear arms pointed at Russia and their arms pointed at us.
We lost a lot of good soldiers in Vietnam. I remember
going to their homes as a news reporter and writing their obituaries for the newspaper I was working for in those years. I
was amazingly deferred from having to fight in that conflict even though the draft was still active. I was not drafted because
I was a college student. The week I was summoned for a physical exam for military induction I was involved in a serious automobile
accident that hospitalized me for two weeks. It took me months to fully recover. The home town draft board seemed to forget
I was even on their list after that. I have always thought that accident may have saved my life. A lot of my friends went
to Vietnam and never came back.
Instead of getting shot at in a jungle on the other side of the world, I stayed at home and
wrote about all of the dead classmates and sons of friends what came home in body bags. I joined the young Americans that
grew weary of war and questioned our reason for being in Vietnam at all.
Because of the negative national sentiment, those soldiers
did not come home as heroes. And after Vietnam Congress did away with the draft so America switched to an all-volunteer army.
Decoration Day was changed to be Memorial Day and in 1971, the holiday was shifted from May 30 to the last Monday in May,
thus turning the affair into a three-day weekend. It then became a three-day holiday weekend that marked the start of the
summer travel and spending season. It was all for materialism. Few were left to remember or even think of the war dead.
Oh, there are still parades and speeches given at the
cemeteries. But the parades are not as grand and as exciting as they were when I was young. The marchers are usually members
of the VFW and the American Legion, mostly overweight old men stuffed into uniforms that don’t really fit them anymore.
Instead of gathering along the street to watch the parade and listen to the speeches, people are home roasting chicken wings,
hot dogs or hamburgers on the barbecue and watching some athletic event on television. It’s a three-day weekend
off from the slave job. For them that is all that really matters.
Wars aren’t fought now like they used to be. We don’t bring as
many home in body bags, at least proportionately to the number of folks living in all the towns. Most of the veterans are
coming home alive but extremely maimed or mentally damaged. Because of missing limbs they don’t march proudly in the
parades, if they show up at all. And most folks are no longer convinced that their "sacrifice" was made in defense of the
nation…..because it wasn’t.
Alas, when the last veterans of World War II are gone, the real meaning of Memorial Day will
be gone with them. And there is something very wrong about that.