I have been used to calling the national holiday we celebrated yesterday—most of us as a Monday off, a good time for gardening or cookouts—“Oblivion Day,” when we Americans all forget the men (and now some women too) who have died in our wars, to establish our nation in freedom and to keep that nation free. When I was a child, it seemed that every little town expressed our pride in parades. My little town did. My cousins and I would get up early in the morning to follow the men in uniform up to the Protestant cemetery on the hilltop, where we heard them fire a twenty-one gun salute, followed by a bugler playing Taps.
Then we hopped on a fire truck and proceeded with the parade through town, ending up at the Catholic cemetery on the mountainside opposite, for another salute, and a memorial Mass. It all ended up at the American Legion, for free doughnuts and orange juice.
It’s been more than thirty years since the last Memorial Day parade there, and I’m sure that my town is hardly alone in that regard. But parades or no, I think we are witnessing a certain revival of Memorial Day, along with a revival of something better than the disdain or the grudging respect with which the veterans of the Vietnam War were greeted. That something is a real gratitude for our soldiers, even affection.
Last night my children and I were part of a packed stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to watch a minor league ballgame, and then to see the Memorial Day fireworks. There was, throughout, that American assumption, still alive and well, that ordinary and sane people believe in a God to whom one can pray.
So, before the seventh inning, the male quartet that had opened the game with the National Anthem (during which everyone, men and women, young and old, stood at attention, sometimes with hands over the heart, and often singing), regaled the crowd with “God Bless America.” After the game was over, they came back onto the field, this time with a soprano lead, to sing “America the Beautiful,” with that petitionary subjunctive that I’m sure everybody mistakes for an indicative statement of fact, “God shed His grace on thee.”
Then during the fireworks, the loudspeakers again played patriotic music, including the pop tune heard everywhere after the bombing of the Twin Towers, “God Bless the USA.” The scoreboard flashed the pictures and names of local men and women who were serving in the military.
Most were but privates, but some were sergeants, and some, it was clear, had been in the service a very long time. Some of the photographs were portraits of the men in uniform, straight shots, no smiles. Others were informal; a father holding a baby, a mother beaming alongside her small child, three friends sitting beside a tank. Every once in a while someone in the crowd would holler or whistle, in honor of someone he knew.
What has changed, since the often shameful treatment of the men who returned from Vietnam? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d like to venture a few suggestions. For one, the soldier represents an ideal of honor and self-sacrifice that is hard to find elsewhere in American life. Elsewhere, one is told to “make something” of oneself, meaning study hard, not for the sake of knowledge, but to earn the pedigree needed to enter the world of well-remunerated work.
Yet we hunger for what such dismal utilitarian habits cannot supply. So we look to the soldier, who may well make his career in or from the service, yet who endures privations we can hardly imagine, and puts his life on the line for his fellows. It is a kind of rough charity, and immensely appealing. All those faces upon the scoreboard were of people who had volunteered to enter the service, knowing that they might well be sent to dangerous lands far away.
Another possible cause is the peculiar makeup of our armies. We now have women in khakis and flak jackets. It is hard for the snarlingest despiser of the American military to look at the smooth chins and slender physiques of women in uniform and call them baby-killers or imperialists or whatever the insult of the day may be. I have a hunch that their presence has roused a certain protective feeling on the part of us civilians, exactly as when people used to call soldiers “our boys.”
Now I am not saying that there is any military use for women in combat, nor do I believe it marks an advance in our civilization that we send mommies in uniform overseas. But it is hard even for my fellow college professors to look at a Private Marcie and sneer, and that may well keep them from sneering in turn at Private Kyle and Sergeant Keith.
Still another cause may be the passing of the men who fought in the Second World War. This so-called Greatest Generation, of those who struggled through the Depression as children, who fought the bloodiest war in man’s history, and who returned to rebuild the United States, has received from even the self-absorbed generation that followed them (mine) an astonishing degree of gratitude and honor. It is, I think, a perfectly healthy thing, to look back with forgiving kindness upon the virtues of one’s forefathers.
Whatever the cause, I am cheered to see Memorial Day reviving. Those secularists among whom I have spent my whole professional life may find it atavistic to sing to God, and to pray that he may bless our nation. They have preached a faculty lounge Marxism that costs them nothing, while smiling with contempt upon young people, even their own students, who wish to give their all for their country.
But the people, the common people, the people who go to minor league baseball games, as ill-taught as they are, still know that their country is something to be loved, that they had better pray for God’s blessing, that they owe much to men and women long dead, and that the soldier with all his faults is to be revered. And they are right.
Soldiers, if some of our elites despise what you do, remember that we salute you, on Memorial Day of course, when we might think to say so, but also on this day after, and on every day. God bless you.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College, a senior editor of Touchstone, and the translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works, as well as the author of Ironies of Faith. His webpage can be found here.