There are several dates for Confederate Memorial Day. The April 26 date celebrates the surrender of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at Bennett Place near Durham, which effectively ended to war. The May 10 date, the surrender of Jefferson Davis or the death of Stonewall Jackson in 1863. As a Southerner, I cannot help but notice the romantic and sentimental celebration of “Lost” in these memorials of “The Lost Cause”. In contrast to the triumphalistic Northern Memorial Day prior to World War I.
In all, Memorial Days are remembrances of the failure of politics that war is, and the human consequences of such failure. And celebrations of obedience to the nation states that sent these men and women to war. All colored with patriotism and flag-waving and bunting and crass commercialism and escape.
All wars have been a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” as the Northern draft riots in 1863 pointed out. Hundreds of thousands of poor Southerners who had no slaves nor any prospect of creating a plantation even if the entire continent comprised slave states, fought because they thought they had prospects or simply because they were drafted or were paid to go in the place of a rich man’s son or a rich man himself.
On Memorial Day we should remember that the post-traumatic stress syndrome of one war can be the cause of the next. Or the insane notion that males in our society have to “prove their manhood” in war. As if peacetime never demands courage, quick thinking, diligence, and persistence–the supposed marks of the military that go by the name of “discipline”.
The nation that celebrates absolute individual freedom also lionizes the the one institution in society in which obedience is absolute, the protections of the Bill of Rights don’t exist, and is the only legitimate (in the eyes of conservatives) employer of last resort. It is the one indispensable government institution, and thus socialist at its core. And no one finds this strange.
No one finds it strange because it is an institution in which your life depends on people you don’t necessarily choose to be with or don’t necessarily like but whom you trust to defend your life in battle as they trust you to defend theirs. And who you mourn when you hear of their falling. That bond captured in the phrase “band of brothers”.
They do need honor on this day, but also do the folks who sacrificed careers, spent time in jail, were beaten, or were killed for saying not only that “War is nonsense” but that “This war is nonsense.” As best we know, Henry Thoreau was one of the first. The Mexican War was the first with an anti-war movement.
James Russell Lowell was another of those critics of the Mexican War. The last stanza of his anti-slavery poem “The Crisis” (which forms the basis of the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation”) is apropos for this Memorial Day.
New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her campfires? We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.
Photo from eddiecoyote licensed under Creative Commons