On This Memorial Day There Are Two Americas

On This Memorial Day There Are Two Americas

By William R. Forstchen Ph.D.

Memorial Day. Those of us old enough to remember might recall a parent or grandparent who referred to it as “Decoration Day.” We might recall as well that “Memorial Day,” was not on the last Monday of the month of May, serving as a convenient three day weekend for sales and summertime vacations, but instead was observed on May 30th, no matter what day of the week that was.

According to tradition it started shortly after the Civil War when General Logan, who was part of the forces occupying the South, observed Southern women laying spring flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union dead, graves still fresh and barely covered with the grass that covers over memories. When he asked why they were thus decorating the graves of their former foes, a woman dressed in the black of mourning supposedly replied that the dead were now comrades in peace and she prayed that southern dead, buried far from home, might be tended by mothers, wives and daughters of the Union.  Logan wrote of it, urged a national day of commemoration and thus “Decoration Day” became a tradition in nearly all states.

After World War One, the fallen of that conflict became part of the memorial services as well.  After World War Two, with hundreds of thousands of new graves to tend, the tradition evolved that “Decoration Day,” would be a day of national commemoration of those who gave “the last full measure of devotion,” and that “Armistice Day,”  November 11th, would become a day of honoring all veterans who served.

And thus it was until 1971 when Congress, creating three day weekends for government employees, including themselves, reordered Memorial Day to the last Monday of the month. 

As a boy growing up in the 1950s I recall Memorial Day in my town as one of solemn dedication. Streets would be blocked off and a parade would weave through the community, visiting the various cemeteries. I would march with the boy scouts, my father with his American Legion post, and at each cemetery prayers would be offered, wreaths laid, followed by a volley salute and taps, which even then made my throat constrict.

We were a single America, united in memory. Yes there was already the blaring of ads on a new thing called television, about Memorial Day sales, and the exodus to the beach by some, but as a shared culture, Memorial Day was a day of memory, recollection and prayer.

We are two Americas today. Yes Presidents have “missed” visiting Arlington before this day but this time, the reasons why and what commentators have said in defense so clearly shows a national divide. 

Earlier this week a notice from the White House announced that the First Family would “vacation” this weekend in Chicago. The First Lady was quoted as saying that this time the children “decided” where they would spend their mini vacation.

Vacation? So Memorial Day is a vacation weekend now, even for the First Family? Of course it was quickly pointed out that the President would visit a military cemetery near Chicago. Of course.  

But that is not Arlington. Arlington is the symbolic center of our national memory for those who died in service to our country. It is as well where the Tombs of the Unknown from most of our 20th century wars are located. The ritual of the Unknown Soldier, as symbolic of all the fallen emerged after World War One, when from the torn battlefields of Europe, America and other nations recovered the unidentified remains of one soldier, to thus symbolize the millions whose final resting place, and identity is “known but to God.”   To honor this one Unknown was the symbolic act of honoring all and thus it became a sacred ritual.

Arlington is, as one Civil War veteran would write, the “the vision place of souls,” and the Tombs of the Unknown, are the focal point of that memory.   When a President lays a wreath before those tombs, it is a symbolic act of memory and mourning on behalf of all of us.  The laying of a wreath in and of itself is also a tradition that harkens back to biblical times. For a President, it is one of the highest honors and obligations that comes with his office.

Is that too much to ask of our president?  Is it too much to ask of a president to set such an example and rather than have a vacation defined by “the kids” that instead, as the First Family together they lead the nation in a day of memory, a memorial day of prayer?

We are now so clearly two Americas and this conflict about how to observe Memorial Day so clearly symbolizes a cultural divide which started in the 1960s and now seems all but unfathomable. That divide was so clearly stated this week by the leftist journalist David Corn, editor with “Nation” Magazine, when he wrote in defense of the First Family’s decision to treat this weekend at a “vacation”:

So what the hell do these conservatives want out of Obama? And does it matter if Obama throws some leaves on a tomb?

David, I will tell you what we want. We want a President who holds sacred certain beliefs and traditions that are the very core and fiber of what we see as being an “American.”.  In a world of such political correctness where we are constantly ordered not to offend, we are the people who on this sacred day are offended beyond any ability to express, offended by our president’s actions, offended by your soulless mocking words. . .”throws some leaves on a tomb. . .”  

If that is indeed your belief, and the belief of those who are apologists for yet another insult by our president to ancient traditions, there is only one answer.   We are a house divided against itself,  we have become two Americas with all which that implies and such a divide, in the end, will be resolved one way or the other and come November, of this year and in 2012 we will remember.

William R. Forstchen is a Professor of History at Montreat College


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