Opinion: Never again, Memorial Day refreshed


Published: 05-25-2024 8:00 AM

John Buttrick writes from his Vermont Folk Rocker in his Concord home, Minds Crossing. He can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com

Wars and rumors of war hang over our nation like the sword of Damocles. The necessity of war is explained with keywords like “security” and “democracy.” They attempt to give meaning and motivation for the preparation for war. They give a rationale for maintaining a powerful military and for the manufacture and distribution of armaments to countries and paramilitary forces around the world.

But it is difficult to find solace and meaning from war’s companion, death. It was extremely difficult after the American Civil War, where death of siblings was the tragic consequence of fighting each other. Following the war, one effort to give meaning to the fallen was to declare an annual Decoration Day. Both the northern states and the southern states began marking their own special day for remembering the fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers.

One of the origin stories of this practice is the 1868 proclamation of General John L. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. In General Order No. 11, he proclaimed that the thirtieth day of May each year be designated for the purpose of “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the rebellion.”

Over time, this Decoration Day became Memorial Day, “to commemorate all men and women who have died in military service for the United States.” The U.S. military website now explains, “Memorial Day is dedicated to remembering and honoring over one million men and women who ultimately sacrificed while serving in the United States Armed Forces.”

Honoring the self-sacrifice of combatants is the popular contemporary function of Memorial Day. However, it is an affront to the path toward security and peace. It misses a significant opportunity to grieve for the tragedy of the wages of war. We should be shouting “no” to interpreting the war dead as imperative sacrifices for the well-being of people in a country that prepares for and participates in interminable wars. Of course, it can be a time to mourn, but not a time to seek to explain the death of soldiers as sacrifice or heroic. Dying in war is unintended, no matter the circumstance.

However, there is more to the story. Memorial Day has become an official day of prayer for permanent peace, through legislative action of the federal government. “The Congressional joint resolution approved May 11, 1950 (64 Stat. 158), has requested the President to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace and designating a period during each such day when the people of the United States might unite in such supplication.”

Later, The Cornell Legal Information Institute (LII), reports that on August 12, 1998, the federal legislature passed a bill (112 Stat. 1257) designating Memorial Day to be the last Monday in May and directing the president to issue each year a proclamation:

■Calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace;

■Designating a period of time on Memorial Day during which the people may unite in prayer for a permanent peace;

■Calling on the people of the United States to unite in prayer at that time;

■Calling on the media to join in observing Memorial Day and the period of prayer

These actions of the government give a completely different meaning to Memorial Day. The acceptance of the wages of a waring nation have been abandoned to be replaced by a pledge of commitment to a permanent peace in the nation, and by extension, world peace. If your individual faith does not include prayer, perhaps there may be a time to unite with those who pray; with meditation or by envisioning the possibilities for permanent peace.

Perhaps we can take a page out of H. G. Wells 1914 book, “The War That Will End War.” Those experiencing the first World War described it with a minor change in the title, “The war to end all wars.”

Guided by Wells’ vision and by the proclamations of our government, it would seem that we have been given a positive way to observe Memorial Day, a way for the fallen to rest easy and for those who sent them to war, a way to forgiveness. This year may we honor those more than a million women and men who have died in war by remembering the tragedy of their deaths, by freeing them from the obligation to be heroes, and by remembering how their suffering the horrors of war has driven the rest of us to pronounce, “never again,” as we pray and decorate their graves.