Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

Well... it's Memorial Day again, and the weather outside is nice and warm and breezy, and our neighbors have been shooting off buzzing fireworks all evening, and it's frightening Coraline but making Marlowe all excited. Over the years, I suppose that I have come to really love this holiday, what with it's signifying of the beginning of Summer, and it's delicious smells, and nice weather, and time off from work.

However, I've never really connected with the holiday as one where it is time to remember all those slain in war. I guess I've only ever understood the more profane aspects of the holiday, baseball and bar-be-que and lake trips, et al. How can it be a somber period of remembrance and mourning when it's nice outside, and the changing of the seasons that are all about excitement and expectation and possibility?

I've never understood Memorial Day, nor have I ever really tried to. I've always assumed that the nation needed some kind of holiday between Easter and the Fourth of July, and we didn't want to celebrate May Day because it was a socialist holiday, so we kind of inserted in Memorial Day. Veteran's Day made sense to me, because it's actually Armistice Day, and because it's in November when everything is dying and the ground is frozen. Robyn has already linked to this article from the Times about Memorial Day's Civil War origins. My favorite quote from it is, "In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream recognition."

It always made more sense to me to celebrate America's war dead on D-Day - one week later - than on Memorial Day. When I was in France during college in 2004, I even made a pilgrimage to Omaha Beach for the sixtieth anniversary of the battle. That's the closest I ever physically got to George W. Bush, although I never did see him inside that big old hotel in Caen. I guess that, as a child, the narrative of World War Two was always more tangible for me than the Civil War. The story of D-Day made sense to me because it did a good job of explaining the country that I lived in. Sixty years ago, Americans got into little boats and sailed across the English Channel to save Western Civilization. (From itself, it turns out, but that wasn't added until later. The Huns and all, you know.) We did that, and now we are the keepers of that light, now we have to be the guardians of the world.

When I was eight years old, we were in Hawaii, and I got to go to Pearl Harbor for my birthday. I saw the U.S.S. Arizona beneath a glass floor underwater. That was the other end of that narrative, that we were not the aggressors, that the Asians were, and that we were acting as avengers, with justice on our side. I think that that's why the Iraq War was so unnerving, because it was some kind of gross mutation, abomination, of that tale.

I was a history buff about the Civil War as a kid, too, but it was never quite as meaningful for me. The narrative was always too messy. I remember reading too many accounts of heroic Confederates to be able to vilify them, it was Americans killing other Americans. And it just never helped to explain the world that I lived in. I'm sure it's different for someone living in Charleston or Baltimore or New York, but for me, that wasn't the story that I connected to.

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