This weekend, we mark the 140th anniversary of the first official observation of the holiday we now call Memorial Day, as established by General John A. Logan’s “General Order No. 11” of the Grand Army of the Republic dated 5 May, 1868. This order reads in part: “The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s order served to ratify a practice that was already widespread, both in the North and the South, in the years immediately following the Civil War.
Alas, for many Americans today, Memorial Day has come to signify nothing more than another three-day weekend, a mere excuse for a weekend cook-out. Such an observance of Memorial Day obscures even the vestiges of its intended meaning: a solemn time, serving both as catharsis for those who fought and survived, and to ensure that those who follow will not forget the sacrifice of those who died that the American Republic and the principles that sustain it, might live.
The sad reality is that Americans have forgotten how to honor their war heroes and to remember their war dead. As “Bing” West observed several years ago in his remarkable book about Fallujah, No True Glory
, stories of soldierly courage deserve “to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deed will die.”
The posture Americans took toward Memorial Day started to go awry with Vietnam. The press, if not the American people, began to treat soldiers as moral monsters, victims, or both. The “dysfunctional Vietnam vet” became a staple of popular culture. Despite the fact that atrocities were rare, My Lai came to symbolize the entire war. Thanks to the press’s preoccupation with the anomaly of My Lai, Lt. William Calley became the poster boy for Vietnam. The honorable and heroic performance of the vast majority of those who served in Vietnam went largely unrecognized.
For instance, how many Americans know the story of Marine Lieutenant John P. Bobo, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam? Here is part of his citation:
When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines. Lieutenant Bobo was mortally wounded while firing his weapon into the main point of the enemy attack but his valiant spirit inspired his men to heroic efforts. . . .
The reason for this disparity in coverage is simple. My Lai fit the conventional narrative of the anti-war Left; Bobo’s story did not.
The conventional wisdom concerning Vietnam has been absorbed by today’s press, even those too young to remember America’s misadventure in Southeast Asia. The resulting predisposition is to believe the worst about those who are willing to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. Opponents of the war, for instance, pounced on the alleged killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha three years ago, long before an investigation was complete. Employing the parlance of a country still entrenched in the Vietnam-era narrative, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a vociferous critic of the war, broke the story by claiming that Marines in Haditha had “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”
In April of 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, U.S. Army, became the first soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives.