Watching the old men walk down the street, not marching, exactly, not at their age, but moving with a certain stiffness and purpose, and the even older men sitting in the convertibles driving past, few of us standing on the sidewalk as the Memorial Day parade goes by think of what they suffered, nor of all the men who might have been marching too had they not died in battle.
I know that from their sacrifices and losses I and those I love gained much (and much we take for granted), but I find it hard to feel gratitude, or to feel it as strongly as I think I should. It’s mainly a thing to do with the children, and the day is hot and muggy, the different bands play over each other, the fire trucks blare their sirens at a painful level, a disturbing number of local politicians drive by grinning and waving. The sooner the old men march by, the sooner we can get back out of the sun.
People raised when and where I was were robbed of the pleasures and the lessons of gratitude. We were taught that any national hero or patriotic story could be exposed as at best a mixture of good and evil, and more likely as an act mainly of self-interest or desire, when it wasn’t simply made up by the mythologizers.
The Constitution may have spoken of liberty, but the liberties it proclaimed were limited in application to certain people and applied with favoritism for the rich and powerful. We actually read something in a social studies class by Charles A. Beard that America fought wars—every war except the second world war, that is, which remained a good war—to advance its self-interest or the designs of businesses who directed the government to their own profit-increasing ends.
As Walter Benjamin famously put it, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” That was the mind we were taught to have—not a kind of Augustinian recognition that nothing in this fallen world comes to us uncorrupted, but the assertion that once seen through, nothing we hold great or good is really so. Our teachers emphasized the second half, the barbarism rather than the civilization.
Slavery in the new United States was not a failure of the men who wrote the Constitution and of their descendents, but evidence that the whole enterprise was at root a sham or a con. George Washington was really this, Thomas Jefferson really that. A few really daring teachers even took on Abraham Lincoln, and a tiny number, politically extreme even for our circles, took on Franklin Roosevelt, whose most expansive welfare policies were really, they insisted, a way of sustaining the oppressive capitalist system while bribing working people into subservience.
I don’t, by the way, think this mind entirely mistaken, nor that our teachers and the writers they pointed us to did not expose a real mythology that justified many bad things. Much of the traditional story was a lie, and a lie that substituted a vision of America for Christ. To some extent this training directed me to Christianity and its moral realism. But it did make gratitude much harder for us.
The old duffers marching on Memorial Day? They didn’t know any better then (unless they were veterans of World War II), and they apparently still don’t, or they wouldn’t be out in their uniforms following the flag. (No Vietnam veteran ever appeared, which was wise for them. I knew people who would not have hesitated to call them baby killers, even years after America left the country and the Communists came to power.)
We might well have felt a little guilty about patronizing the old men (I think I did, but it’s hard to remember), because our feelings were better than our ideas, but I know we did not feel grateful. Knowing my peers, even the politically conservative ones, and listening to conversations along the parade route, I’m sure that even these three decades later many of us have never really learned to feel it. Now that we’re older, I think, we’ve learned to value our country in a way we did not before, but that has not translated into the proper feelings.
Child of my schooling though I am, I’m still disturbed by my inability to feel moved as the old men march by in the Memorial Day parade. Yes, of course American motives were impure and some things the nation did were wicked. But that is not the veterans’ fault. Yes, some were drafted and went to war under duress. But that does not reduce our debt to them.
They sacrificed for us, and are due praise for that, and much they accomplished made the world a better place. The Germans did not get a chance to kill all the Jews, to give an obvious example.
And they are also a kind of public memory of something for which we ought to feel grateful. As Robert Wilken wrote in “Keeping the Commandments,” these incarnate public memories “are not abstractions, but concrete testimonies to the lives and convictions of those who have gone before us.”
As John Lukacs has reminded us, there is “recorded” history and also “remembered” history. The things we remember in our common life quietly convey a precious inheritance that helps us keep faith with the dead and form, in unspoken ways, the sensibilities and attitudes, not to say hopes and dreams, of those who will follow us. There is no greater betrayal than to impoverish a generation yet unborn by willful acts of amnesia. What we honor in our public life has a bearing on how we live as individuals.
I’m not sure what the answer is to feeling too little gratitude on the day we ought to remember those to whom we owe much, except to follow the traditional Christian instruction to practice what you believe, and pray that the feeling of belief follows. Not that it matters much if it does.
I have thought of one thing to do, since my Church teaches us to pray for the departed: go to the cemetery at some regular interval and walk along the graves, praying for each soldier or sailor whose grave I find. They may have no one to pray for them. And I can pray for soldiers when I think of them, or read about them in a history book or see an exhibit at a museum, and pray for the soldiers I see in public. They may have no one to pray for them. These are little things, a tiny investment of time, but it is something.
And I can applaud the old men in their uniforms as they march by. Another small thing, but at least they’ll hear it.
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. This column was adapted from an item he wrote last year for the magazine’s weblog “First Thoughts.”
Robert Louis Wilken’s Keeping the Commandments