Sunday, May 24, 2009

Decoration Day

In case you don't recognize the title, Decoration Day is what we now call Memorial Day. Like so many truly historical and important observances, the holiday has become "the weekend," and far too many of us concern ourselves with family picnics, hot dogs and hamburgers, and get-togethers while forgetting what the day itself actually means. For many, Memorial Day is indeed a "holy day."

The original observance began some time during the Civil War, but didn't become an official holiday until after the war was concluded. At first, it was rarely celebrated in the South, since it honored the dead of The Grand Army of the Republic (the North), and actually was observed somewhat separately by African-Americans to honor the dead "Negro slaves who won their freedom fighting for the Union."

The original name came from the "decoration" of the graves of the fallen soldiers with flowers and ribbons. It continued to be called Decoration Day for many, although the name Memorial Day was first used officially in 1882. The terms were interchangeable until the day was formally recognized by Congress and the President as Memorial Day in 1967. Sadly, its status as a true observance was damaged, much like "Presidents Day" by changing the date of the holiday to create a long "holiday weekend" the following year, and that became the formal holiday nationwide in 1971.

By the late 1890s, the day no longer had the exclusivity of being only for Union soldiers, and quickly became a national holiday which honored the dead who had fought in all of America's wars and served her in the military during peacetime. And so it has continued. But how many of us, and I include all of us who love America and support our military, have fallen into the laziness of the abstract quick nod to our honored dead so that we can get on with the barbecue? Although I have been negligent from time to time, I try to get myself up on Memorial Day Monday (the actual holiday), and go to a military cemetery to say a prayer for those who gave their lives in war so that I might live in peace.

For me, that is the National Cemetery of San Francisco located in the historical Presidio. There are about thirty Medal of Honor recipients buried there, and I take a bunch of poppies or other flowers with me to place on one or two of those graves. Occasionally, the family of the recipient is there, in which case I nod respectfully and leave them to their private observance and move to another location. I hope that some of you can find it in your hearts and busy schedules to do something similar Monday morning. It is a great opportunity for prayerful contemplation on the price our fighting men and women have paid for our freedom.

One quick note for those of you who fly the American flag on such occasions. Proper etiquette is that the flag be raised briskly to the peak and then slowly back to half-staff until noon local time, and then raised again briskly to the peak.


patti said...

thanks for post honoring those who fought for our freedoms (many times in the last few months i have been particularly thankful that i am free to blog, although others may argue that i abuse the forum). i will pass it along to my guests today as we eat, drink and raise our blood pressure over the current state of affairs.

Writer X said...

Excellent post. And well said. The true meaning can get lost in all of the barbecues, pool parties, and shopping mall specials.

BevfromNYC said...

Thanks for the great post (again!). We have lost the meaning for ALL our holidays. We have forgotton the meaning of "holiday" and it's derivation - "holy day" or a sacred day. That's why when there was talk of making 9/11 a national holiday I was adamantly opposed. All I could envision was the eventual "Terrorist Day Sale" at the local malls.
We have forgotton how to honor those who have come before us and sacrificed so much either by design or by accident, so that we can be free and well fed. Freedom comes with a price tag and, apparently, it's on sale at Macy's.

StanH said...

When I was a kid in a small South Georgia town, I used to ride my bike into town. On the way I passed the Chamber of Commerce and at the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Chamber put a marquee on the front lawn of the names of the young men serving. As the years past it was expanded until it was a threefold marquee with almost three hundred names. As a soldier was killed they would black out his name, and I can remember being struck, and saddened by their ultimate sacrifice. Now forty plus years have passed and that grim marquee fixed in my mind, the American soldier is still paying the ultimate price for this great country. We pause for a day as the mournful notes of Taps can be heard in military cemeteries throughout the USA, may God bless the American soldiers and their families.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Thanks for the elloquent explanation of Memorial Day.

Unknown said...

I thank you all for your kind comments. My family has a strong military history, and my uncle Joe got his field commission in the Marines as part of the team that raised the first American flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima (not the more iconic flag-raising so beautifully memorialized in photographs and statuary). I never had the opportunity to serve, so I try to to serve in a different way.

Bev: I had never looked at the 9/11 potential holiday in that way. You are absolutely right, they would have found a way to make the day profane. I'm a strong supporter of capitalism, but it does have a dark side.

StanH: Wonderful comment about both the day, and your personal experience in a small Georgia town. Two tunes always bring me to a very emotional state--The Star Spangled Banner, and Taps.

Captain Soapbox said...

Lawhawk, thanks for the very moving and most excellent article. Many people forget why we even have any of our holidays, and that's because of those that served and sacrificed before us.

I come from a military family, on the one side of the family my first American ancestor fought in the French and Indian War, and someone (usually more that just one someone) has fought in every war the US has been in from then until now. On the other side they've fought in every war since they emigrated here, so World War I through the current ones. It's just what we do.

So I never had to wonder about what Memorial Day or Veteran's Day meant when I was a kid, all I had to do was look at my grandfather, uncles, cousins to see it, or look over at at the shelf with pictures with gold stars and Purple Hearts attached to them and it was there for me to know and understand. One of the things I wonder about though is this, how many families out there are like mine, with years, if not decades and centuries of military service being a tradition in them? I'd wager that the number is higher than most people would assume since demographically the military now comes from the same social and geographical regions as they always have. Sure there are kids who enlist for whatever reason even though no one in their family has heard a shot fired in anger for their entire documented history, and I salute them for taking that step, but it makes me wonder if there isn't some sort of quiet military class that's developed under the radar over the years.

My best friend from when I was in the Marines came from the exact same sort of family I did, complete to us both having ancestors fight on both sides of the War Between the States, my commanding officer, likewise, about 75% of the men in my platoon, same-same. Only about 25% of the guys were from families with either no military background at all (mostly immigrants as well) or from families where the only military forebearers they'd had was one grandpa drafted for WWII or an uncle for Vietnam but that being the extent of it. Yeah this is sort of tangential but I do have a little bit of a point.

The point being that a lot of Americans have lost sight of what military service means and how it is directly responsible for our freedom. Furthermore if you look at the voting trends for the military it comes down to an average of 70% Republican to 30% Democrat, which dovetails with the numbers in my experience with people who come from military families that are serving, compared to those that don't. I'm not saying if someone in the military come from a military family they're voting Republican every time, and vice versa, but the numbers are close enough to make me wonder. And if that is the case, then I think an argument could be made that one of the reasons that liberals tend to be so anti-military is not only because they have no experience with it, but also because perhaps there really is an element of class warfare going on, not based on economic class but on what could perhaps be a de facto military class.

I don't know, something about the article and the responses made me ponder that, and I figured I'd share. I could be completely wrong, but the numbers make me really wonder. Regardless tomorrow I'll be going to the cemetery to make sure the flags are on all the graves in my family plot and to say a few words as I do every year that I'm able to.

BevfromNYC said...

Cap: This is my take on why.

We lost something in this country when we disbanded the draft. We no longer find it necessary to sacrifice for anything. The mandatory military service taught generations of men discipline, sacrifice, honor, and heck, even etiquette. You know the slogan "Join the Navy and see the World". I think it did and does that. I think it gave otherwise aimless people a direction in life and the discipline to achieve. And if you were in the Navy on a ship, how to deal with living in small crowded spaces for months at a time with nothing to see but water. It showed (and shows) men and now woman that there is something beyond one own needs and that sometimes the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual. But no one is ever left behind. Team work, community, and brotherhood (personhood).

Captain Soapbox said...

Bev, I agree with you that the military does definitely build, or reinforce. that sort of spirit in people, but the thing is I can't really support a draft in the US for a few reasons.

First off by their inherent nature armies that are built up around a draft generally, well for lack of a better term, suck. There are exceptions to the rule, like what happened in World War II when everyone in the US was behind the war effort (okay not everyone, but the percentage was high enough to make it effectively everyone) and that meant that there wasn't a lot of grumbling about being drafted because the cause was generally seen to be the right one so everyone just sucked it up and did their part. That isn't the case right now, the US is in 2 major shooting wars, and support for the war isn't anywhere near the level that it was in World War II. If you institute a draft right now, there would be a hell of a lot of grumbling from people, which would carry over when they were put in uniform. That sort of grumbling took until 1968 or so for it to become an issue during Vietnam, at this point in time it'd be instantaneous as soon as it got put into effect. It would degrade the morale and combat effectiveness progressively as more and more draftees were fed into established combat units, and any "supplemental" units that were newly formed from draftees with a small cadre of experienced volunteer troops to build around would be almost combat ineffective.

The second point is that not only would anti-war people who were drafted remain anti-war, but they'd have another reason to gripe, which comes back to the morale thing but even more importantly you're average 18 year old in America isn't made of the same raw material as the guys that were drafted 65 years ago to go to France. Most generally not as fit since they spend most of their time on computers or working in coffee boutiques rather than working in factories or on farms. Most don't have the same basic values when they've grown up on gangsta rap and MTV rather than having a solid schooling where morality was taught. And most have nowhere near have the same work ethic of an 18 year old from that era.

Now don't get me wrong, there are many 18 year old people today that do have those merits, and I'm not saying that 18 year old men in 1942 were better than ones in 2009, that isn't it. But in general the military of today has to sift for people like that, whereas in 1942 they could draft everyone, and 90% would come up as "usable material." I mean I've seen it for myself, many modern 18 year olds will b*tch if their text messaging service goes down for 10 minutes and having their ISP drop for an entire day is justification for pondering self-mutilation and therapy. Compare that to guys who had to load their own ships to invade Guadalcanal because the dock workers were on strike, then had to unload them under fire, while fighting back, all the while most of them suffering from tropical diseases which would get them put into quarantine today let alone being put on patrol.

I'm not saying all modern people of that demographic are weak, many are not, many serve in the military of their own free will; but if you draft all of that demographic, half the Army would have to be on mood stabilizers from all of the shooting that just goes on at the firing range. After they were exposed to combat the DoD would need to attach as many psychologists to each brigade as they do trauma medics.

Okay this went too long continued below.

Captain Soapbox said...

(continued from above)

Those are my two main arguments against a draft. That doesn't even include what happens if you only draft men? What happens if you draft women too? What happens if someone decides to bring a court case against the DoD because of gays being forced into the military, either pro or against? It's a very, very slippery slope talking about a draft in modern day America.

I have seen armies that have draftees in them, the Bundeswehr in the early '90s still had a draft (not sure if they still do) and while no one would doubt a German soldier's courage, they were just counting the time until they could get the hell out. Except for the professional officer and NCO corps, they were generally well disciplined, well trained and yet not very motivated. And that's the best of the NATO militaries I saw firsthand that included draftees.

The only military which uses a draft right now that I have personal experience with that has as high of a standard of readiness, morale and combat efficiency as an all volunteer army like the US or UK is the Israeli Defense Forces. But they're the exception that proves the rule. Afterall, when the front line can be as close as 8 miles from your front door, and your country has been on more or less a permenent state of war for 60 years, it tends to put things in a little different perspective.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Lawhawk for a great post!
I also appreciate all the terrific and thought provoking comments.

As a retired sailor, I don't think I'm bein' presumptous in saying that everyone in the military has enormous gratitude for patriots like you.

Guys and gals like you watch our backs when we are overseas, or training, or fightin'.

You keep an eye on Congress and the President and woe to anyone that attempts to harm our veterans, like Obama talked about doin' in regards to veterans healthcare and private insurance.

Patriots like you convinced Congress that was not a good idea if they valued their jobs.

So thank you and all you patriots out there for bein' a patriot, and for getting it.

God bless the men and women who gave their all to protect our liberty. God bless their families.
And God bless the patriots who support our veterans.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Well said, Captain!

I concur, a draft in todays culture would be detrimental, I'm sorry to say, because it does show more of a lack of patriotism than our country used to have.

Of course, we ain't gonna stop doin' everything we can to educate anyone who'll listen, since most public schools won't do it anymore.

There's always hope, as long as we still got men and women volunteering, and patriots like you Bev who support veterans.

I won't be silent no matter where I am if I hear folks bad mouthing our country and veterans. I'm fortunate enough to live in a mostly conservative county in Washington state, so it's easy enough to do that here.

I would probably be in trouble if I lived in Seattle or San Francisco though. :^)

BTW, Lawhawk, your city is beautiful, and I do realize there's conservatives like you there, who try to reign in the madness of the left. Tough job, and I don't envy you, lol.

Unknown said...

USS Ben: Great to see you here. And thanks for your kind comment as well as your thoughtful input. We hope to see you here regularly.

AndrewPrice said...


I absolutely could not believe the suggestion that soldiers would be made to pay for their own wounds. I have NEVER heard a more despicable suggestion come out of D.C.

I am so glad to hear that so many Americans flooded Congress with their phone calls and letters expressing their outrage. When people put their lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe and free, they deserve better.

And that this administration would even suggest something like that tells us something about the rottenness at their core.

AndrewPrice said...

On the draft, I agree that a draft is a bad idea. I understand the concern that there is nothing to bind us together as a community right now, but I believe (like Capt. Soapbox) that instituting a draft would endanger the professionalism which makes our military so effective and respected.

Captain Soapbox said...

Thank you Ben, and a hearty well said right back at you! And I second what Lawhawk said, hope to see you around often. :-D

I also want to clarify something, I hope I was specific enough but sometimes I can never tell if I am or not, so I'll go on to say that my generalizations about the "yutes" of today are for those that are not inclined to be in the military in the first place, not those that are.

There are still plenty of patriotic, well conditioned, and morally upright people willing to enter the military. And we can all be glad of that fact, even those of us who were "natural born lifers" from long military traditions have nothing but respect for both those kids who aren't your "typical" enlistee but work their butts off to become the best they can, as well as those who support the military through their thoughts, words, prayers and deeds in civilian life. Never give up hope on the true patriots because they have historically, and hopefully always will outnumber those who look down on the military. But in general, part of our sucess and comfort as a nation has lead to a general reduction in standards across the board if you're talking about the vast teeming pool of man(and now woman)power available.

But also, your average 18 year old soldier or Marine of today is light years more mentally prepared for combat than our grandfathers were in WWII. One thing the American military has always been good at is learning and adapting on the fly, which means there are many old studies around that you can find and read that are downright fascinating. One study I read showed that in the ETO in WWII only 1 in 5 riflemen actually consistently fired their rifles at the enemy with the intent to kill them. Now that doesn't mean they never fired, but some men would let off suppression fire all day long, but wouldn't actually take a shot at a visible enemy most of the time. Others couldn't even bring themselves to do that but had no problem being the loader on a bazooka or machinegun. But only 20% of the Army in Europe from '44-'45 would line up a visible enemy and take him out without batting an eyelash.

Contrast that with modern studies on the same subject, done with the same reporting standards and you'll find in National Guard units the number of "shooters" is now around 80%, in the Reserves it's around 90% and regular Infantry divisions is around 95%. That means that the modern infantryman is at least 4 times as likely to actually willfully engage the enemy to kill them with their personal weapon. Among the Marines it was then, and is now, higher across the board, but when your National Guard troops, are as "deadly" as your average WWII Marine, then something is being done right.

So don't get me wrong, the enlisted kids of today are not only great at what they do, but compared to the Greatest Generation are statistically much better at kicking ass and taking names. Some of that is the better training available now, but some of it is cultural. For better (in this case it is better) or worse modern American kids are more desensitized to violence before they even hit military age, than your average "cherry" in the Battle of the Bulge or even Okinawa were.

That may be bad in civilian life, but it does make for a military that is the most deadly the world has ever seen. Which should make you feel better. As Orwell said:

"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

BevfromNYC said...

Excellent responses from all. I agree a professional military is worlds above a conscripted one. And don't get me wrong, there are so many, many young people who do many good things. I really didn't mean we should re-institute the draft, though if we did, I do think women should be drafted right long with the men. I believe strongly in equality in all things. If we women want to be equal, we must be equal in the risk as well.

[Excuse me why I get down from my soapbox. It's kind of rickety]

Anyway, even in peacetime there is something to be learned by being in the military. My father served in the Navy between 1954 to 1959. (He joined up before he was drafted because if he was going to serve, he wanted to serve in the Navy.) These were considered one of the peacetime years. Because he had advanced degrees, he went to OCS and later trained as a pilot. He served in the last squadron of seaplanes before the Navy discontinued the service. And fortunately for him, he didn't see any wartime action, but he did get that discipline and honor that comes from serving something bigger than himself and he saw the world. He talks about his Navy service with great pride and has such great stories to tell. I wonder what stories our young people will tell?

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