In a time of war, celebrating Memorial Day becomes fraught withconfl

In a time of war, celebrating Memorial Day becomes fraught with conflict, challenge
By Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic

San Francisco Chronicle, CA
May 28 2004

Ninety-nine years ago, Ohio Sen. Joseph Benson Foraker opened a 1905
Memorial Day address to “fellow comrades, ladies and gentleman” at
Arlington National Cemetery: “This day belongs to our soldier dead;
not of one war, but of all our wars; and particularly here, in this
cemetery, where on these shafts and stones we read names that illumine
so many periods of our history.”

The sentiments of Foraker, a Civil War veteran, may sound like so much
standard-issue oratory to us now. At the time, they were anything
but. In a campaign that was doomed to failure in his lifetime, the
Ohio senator’s inclusive rhetoric was aimed in part at the neglect
of black soldiers who had fought in the Civil War and enjoyed none
of their white counterparts’ honors.

A century later, the American rite of remembering the war dead remains
as fractious as ever. Clouded by an increasingly troubled conflict
in Iraq, the looming threat of what’s to come in an amorphous war on
terror, and the current complex symbology of public monuments and
wartime imagery, Memorial Day arrives in 2004 in a highly ionized
climate.

Saturday’s dedication of the new World War II Memorial on the National
Mall in Washington, D.C., caps yet another such process — like that
of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Oklahoma City National Memorial
— steeped in controversy and strong feelings. The positioning,
sightlines, scale and design of the relatively old-fashioned
neoclassical World War II project underwent substantial revision
during the years it took to get it approved and built.

>>From the ongoing search for a fitting World Trade Center memorial to
a presidential campaign inflected by Sen. John Kerry’s meticulously
documented Vietnam record (and subsequent protest activities) and
the ellipses in George Bush’s National Guard years, the impact and
layered implications of a collective national memory continue to
grow. Nothing gets remembered simplistically anymore, whether in a
monument, ceremony, stump speech or campaign ad.

In many ways the trend is a healthy one. A culture that can openly air
and debate its history and the way it is celebrated seems intrinsically
better off for acknowledging its own grief, determination and dark
ambivalence. As George Santayana famously advised, around the time of
Sen. Foraker’s Arlington address, those who fail to remember the past
may be condemned to repeat it. Whether it follows that our means and
rituals of registering the past can help liberate us from its violent
cycles is another question.

It’s also true, and patently so, that any act of celebrating the war
dead is intrinsically political. No matter how neutral he might try
to sound in his Memorial Day remarks, or even if he never mentions
Iraq, Bush can’t help but speak to the present crisis and loss of
American life on the battlefield. Any wartime president faces the
same challenge — and opportunity (especially in an election year).

Memorial Day has never been a neutral event. Even its beginnings are
contentiously charged. Established as Decoration Day during the Civil
War, and fixed at May 30 on the calendar in 1868, it was initially
conceived as a tribute to those killed in the war between the North
and South. More than two dozen cities and towns claimed ownership of
the idea to decorate soldiers’ graves with flowers and wreaths.

Many Southern communities balked at the notion of a unifying
national ritual, insisting on ceremonies for the Confederate dead on
a different day. Lyndon Johnson resolved the matter, on paper, with
a 1966 declaration of Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Memorial
Day. Several Southern states still remember Confederate soldiers
on a separate date. No war, as Memorial Day faithfully reminds us,
is ever completely done and gone.

Moina Michael’s 1918 poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” crystallized
that feeling for a nation freshly traumatized by World War I. “The
Poppy red,” as she put it, “seems to signal to the skies/ That
blood of heroes never dies.” Poppies became the emblematic flower
of remembrance.

It was not until after World War I that Decoration Day’s name and
concept changed. Then, and thereafter, Memorial Day would honor those
who lost their lives not only in the Civil War, but in any U.S. war.
Foraker’s plea to remember soldiers “not of one war, but of all wars”
was ahead of its time.

With the National Holiday Act in 1971, Congress moved Memorial Day
to the last Monday in May. That creation of a three-day holiday, at
a time of growing resistance to the Vietnam War, helped demilitarize
and domesticate the holiday. Along with the picnics, potato salad and
swimming-pool-opening rites that came to mark the beginning of summer,
Americans have added their own meanings to Memorial Day.

More and more, as the clarity of a day devoted to honoring only the
war dead blurs, the holiday’s meaning has changed and evolved. Loss
itself, and the rites and consolations of memory, have become its
themes. Memorial Day flowers now decorate the graves of infants and
grandparents, spouses and lovers, celebrities and friends.

At the same time, the desire for collective grief and healing has
expanded. Over the past few decades, major public memorials have been
mounted for AIDS, for the Holocaust, for slavery and for genocide in
Armenia, Rwanda and elsewhere.

Almost as soon as some catastrophe happens now — in Oklahoma City,
Waco, the World Trade Center, Columbine — discussion of how to
memorialize it begins. Just as important as what gets built or said
or sung is the way it happens. How can the grief and sorrows and rage
of survivors be balanced with the summons of history, the call to
speak truthfully to future generations of what happened here and now?

Any memorial records two different and by no means concordant things —
the event that is its ostensible subject and the temper of the present
era. One of the marvels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt was its homespun
spontaneity, its use of an American heartland commonplace to stitch
the lives of gay people into the broader fabric of American life. That
was a radical and radically inclusive message 20 years ago. The quilt’s
mobility, fragility and even its cumbersomeness became integral to its
meaning. Unlike a piece of carved granite sitting in a field somewhere,
this was something fundamentally organic. It was a memorial for both
life and death ongoing.

And so, in a sense, is whatever happens on any given Memorial Day.
The day, the weekend, will pass in more than 290 million ways this
year. Many people will visit gravesites, both military and civilian.
Many won’t think of death or war at all. A few may pass the time by
reading “Memorial Day,” a cheery new novel by Vince Flynn about an al
Qaeda nuclear attack on Washington, D.C., during the dedication of
a World War II memorial. Somehow, together, we’ll be adding another
page to our national book of memory.

Along the chillier things President Bush has said of late is his
response to Bob Woodward’s question about how history might assess
the war in Iraq. “We won’t know,” the president said. “We’ll all
be dead.” Maybe so, but many millions will be here to remember, to
grieve and pay tribute and try to make it part of how to move forward.

E-mail Steven Winn at [email protected]