Today is Memorial Day. Today we’re supposed to remember those who’ve died while fighting in the name of the United States of America, and unofficially, those who have died since doing so. For those veterans who’ve survived, we have Veterans’ Day. These two holidays have become generic, catch-all dates of much-deserved appreciation, but each has a much more specific—and a much more profound—historical significance.
Memorial Day used to be Decoration Day, which commemorated and honored the Union soldiers who died during the Civil War. On May 30, 1868, this was how President James Garfield began the very first Decoration Day address:
I am oppressed with the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice.
For Garfield, the only halfway-decent tribute to our entombed soldiers is silence. Words can lie, promises can be broken, and protestations of national destiny or personal bravery can be, and frankly quite often are, bullshit. So for a moment, we need the words to stop, and we need to take in the full significance of these Americans who sacrificed their lives for something bigger, though not necessarily better, than themselves.
We still observe a moment of silence on Memorial Day, sometimes. But it’s worth remembering why we do it. Moments of silence are not merely suspensions of words and sound and noise. They acknowledge that some things are beyond words and sound and noise, beyond our powers of expression, beyond our otherwise unlimited capacity to justify violence.
Let’s turn to Kurt Vonnegut for something else worth remembering, namely that
all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
Again, silence. A moment when we allow words to fail—which might be as close as we can ever come to hearing the voice of God.
Whereas Decoration Day heavily favored the canonization of one side (the Union), Armistice Day abandons any such pretense to ancient traditions of victor and vanquished. No, the really important thing was that the killing had stopped, plain and simple. The sheer weight of the fight, for that one suspended moment, meant considerably more than whatever we’d all been fighting for.
Given that historical context, I think it is supremely unwise to flatten our nation’s myriad wars and countless fallen warriors into just two days of semi-silent observance (with breaks in the silence, of course, for bargain-hunting). We shouldn’t be consolidating our days of remembrance. Rather, we should be multiplying them, as our foreign entanglements have multiplied.
We should have one day for the First World War, and another for the Second World War. A day for the Civil War, and a day for the Revolutionary War. A day for the conflict in Vietnam, a day for the conflict in Korea, a day (or more) for the recently-ended war(s) in Iraq, and a day for the ongoing war in Afghanistan, our longest to date. A day for each of the wars we waged against barbary pirates. A day for each of our McKinley-era colonial conquests. A day for the Mexican-American War, and one of the Cherokee War, and yes, one for our wildly extralegal Reagan-era adventure in Nicaragua.
And on and on and on, filling up our calendar, demanding that we all learn a thing or two about each past confrontation—some of them as heartbreakingly necessary as others were heartbreakingly unnecessary—and forcing us to acknowledge that no federal holiday, no words, no promises or high-minded nationalist rhetoric, could ever constitute a fitting tribute to those lost.
We can’t slap a neat little bow on their sacrifice without being (at best) patronizing or (at worst) morally insane. It’s bigger than that, it’s more complicated than that, and it’s well beyond the scope of a holiday or two.