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Memorial Day DC 2013

Today is Memorial Day, and since my current living situation doesn’t allow me to barbecue, I’m making a stab at observing the original purpose of the day, honoring the nation’s war dead. I fear I’m not very good at it.

The wiki tells us that the name started replacing “Decoration Day” in the late 19th century, but did not really catch on until after WWII. Also, it was observed on May 30 until 1968, when Congress made it the start of the barbecue season conclusion of a three-day holiday. (The VFW has protested ever since.)

I can relate to the WWII part. My dad was 4-F, but I had an uncle in it, a ship’s doctor who died in the Pacific campaign. And it was not like the current wars where we folks at home only experience it in the media if at all. The entire civilian populace was mobilized to grow victory gardens and save the tin foil from cigarette packs. There was food rationing, and the dairy industry managed to finagle a law where margarine could only be sold uncolored so that we had to mix in the color ourselves.

And one of the reasons I’m now a radical is that I could not buy the idea of the late 1940s that the Russians were suddenly the evilest of evil. I had grown up believing they were the good guys because, as a newsreel of the time put it, “they gave us dead Germans.”

But disturbing images of non-Caucasian dead creep into my consciousness, to disrupt my honoring of my uncle and the others who fell then. WWII defeated Hitler, which was said to be its purpose, but also produced two of the greatest war crimes in the history of the world: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The people who went to jail for pacifism had a point, granted that I never heard of them until many years later.

Fast forward to the Vietnam era. We got a memory of it here in Washington yesterday, when the streets surrounding the national mall suddenly looked like the set for The Wild One. As happens every year on the middle of the three days, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Brandos who call themselves “Rolling Thunder” took their bikes around the mall to end at the Vietnam Memorial. This group didn’t actually get started until many years after the war, in fact late in the Reagan administration, when some vets became spokesmen for the idea that “communist Vietnam” was still holding American POWs and that the government was covering it up. To be sure, that impetus for the group is rarely mentioned anymore, it being said that the focus is to call attention to POW/MIAs in general, and probably many of today’s thunder rollers have not even heard of it.

And I’m not going to label Rolling Thunder a mere jingoist cult. I used to think so, but that was before a prominent member objected to inviting Sarah Palin to the 2011 event, It’s not a monolithic organization, after all. I only wish it were not the case that on the Sunday afternoon in question your only access to or from the museums that line the mall is not by walking or driving there, but via the sole Metro station inside the perimeter (which can get pretty crowded this time of year).

Then last night was the second event of the middle day: one of two concerts of the year (the other being in the middle of the Labor Day weekend) where the National Symphony Orchestra channels its inner Boston Pops and gives an outdoor concert at the Capitol end of the mall, with entertainment industry figures at the level of Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise.

I confess that I stopped going to the NSO several years ago, when they instituted the tradition of beginning every concert with the jingoist patriotic Star-Spangled Banner, expecting the audience to stand and hold their hands over their hearts. It’s too bad, too, because the great music critic Anne Midgette (don’t hold the fact that she writes for WaPo against her) says it’s really gotten good since Christoph Eschenbach took over.

For all that I could have seen the concert on TV, hitting the mute button for the objectionable parts like I do when an excerpt from one of O’s speeches comes on the news. But I settled for ESPN, and watched the Phillies snap a losing streak against Atlanta (even without Utley or Howard playing).

Vietnam was the last war where most of our dead did not go to battle by choice. After the huge campus disruptions of the early 1970s the PTB wised up and ended the draft (aside from instituting other measures such as shifting the standard college year so that it ends earlier in the spring, before the weather turns warm). Instead, the armed services are now staffed by people who can’t find another job volunteer. Today’s ceremonies are mostly about US deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan (granted that a while ago the TV showed O at Arlington laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, who go back further). Thus a parade is going down Constitution Ave. as we speak to honor those who died for the MIC our freedom. You can even see it on TV if you get the Pentagon Channel,

But to me it conjures up images of women and children killed by a drone strike because they attended some Afghanistan or Pakistan militant’s funeral. So I am watching the Orioles play the Nationals. Sorry, Uncle Don (you can cross things out, but that doesn’t make them go away).

Maybe some year there will be a Memorial Day I can throw myself into more whole-heartedly. But I suspect that will only happen when war is no more — in which case you can bet there will be no reason for the day to be promoted like it is now.

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E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall