Memorial Day

It would be nice to love a country unconditionally. It would be nice to do so even limited to those special occasions when compatriots gather for that purpose. Times of celebration are always times of forgetting, among other things. Take the ordinary birthday party, on which occasion celebrants agree to put aside tensions with the honored guest as well as h/er shortcomings and assert that, on balance, all are glad the birthday kid was born and remains among the living.

Days dedicated to national memory are even more of a problem in this respect since they are created to insist that the living have not forgotten the dead; that the present acknowledges the past. Even so, the memory is selective in order to be reverent in recognition of our general disdain for the conditionally grateful. A sure way for a wedding guest to be despised is to express less than total commitment in the wisdom of the union and the glory of its future. “I certainly hope it lasts,” or “He’s a bit of a dim bulb but will be great with the kids” are inappropriate because one doesn’t honor an invitation with a reservation.

National histories are certainly as problematic as personal ones, if not more so, so there is a proportionally strong injunction against any suggestion that precious lives lost back then were given in vain. On celebratory occasions let the cause be just by definition. If this were really the deal it would be easier to relax about it; to lighten up. But many who feel strongest about holding to the occasion are not willing to open up the discussion at other times. The prime case involved construction of the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian a decade back when some people wanted it to be presented as a permanent Memorial Day rather than a somewhat more comprehensive history -- meaning that doubts had to be part of the event.

The Civil War has always been one the of hardest cases for me because I was taught, as part of progressive history, that only chumps and public school kids believe it was fundamentally about slavery. But absent the slavery motive it is difficult to justify the carnage just to forestall an independent, and presumptively free, Confederacy. I never shared Lincoln’s belief that the Union was worth any price. Since there seems no reason to believe an independent Confederacy would have been free, I choose to believe the war was about slavery. But even this level of simplicity requires several sentences.

In light of Vietnam, W.W.II is fondly remembered as the good war, the clean war, where the enemy was an unprovoked country-consuming aggressor with a cataclysmic agenda for all but a few. The cost, said by many to be 100 million souls world wide, is beyond the contemplation of language. But even in the clean war there was plenty of dirt. It was the war that institutionalized massive attacks on civilian populations and invented new, extraordinarily effective and ghastly techniques for doing so. And this is not just about THE BOMB. It is also about the conventional firestorms and Dresden.

And it is about THE BOMB to the extent that the best case for dropping it rests on the moral claim that it is better to incinerate cities full of THEIR civilians than to lose armies full of OUR young soldiers. It is an uncomfortably ambiguous way to end a war of legendary cleanth, yet it is the best we can do.

So days set aside for memory become days of struggle with forgetting at the price of remembering the wrong things and feeling at odds with ones fellows, again. It would certainly be better for me if we set aside times to sanctify tragedy, to remember how full of pain the world can be, and how little relief from it heroism provides.





©Al Katz • Prof. of law SUNY, Buffalo, 1969-1989 (ret.)