Memorial Day, The Misunderstood Holiday

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger

Easter Dogwood
View from Tim’s grave at the National Cemetery
Photo by Charlton Stanley (his father)

Friday I was reading another blog, and was stunned and appalled to read this opening line in a post (emphasis mine):

“For most of us, Memorial Day is a joyous occasion. We may think of idyllic, lazy summer days of childhood, whole months away from school. Our greatest concern might well be the inevitable traffic jams created when large groups of people head for the same destination at the same time.”

Many, including the person who wrote the statement above, mistake Veteran’s Day for Memorial Day. The day does not celebrate the veteran. It is a day of remembrance for those who never had a chance to become a veteran. Veteran’s Day is November 11, formerly called Armistice Day.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. The exact origin of the custom of decorating the graves of those who gave all in service to the country is shrouded by the mists of time and folklore. Memorial Day became official when General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued his General Order No. 11 on 5 May 1868. The first official Memorial Day observance was 30 May 1868. On that day, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.  Every year until 1971, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. In 1971, the National Holiday Act of 1971 was passed, making Memorial Day part of a three-day weekend.  When Memorial Day became just another long weekend with a day off from work, it began to lose its meaning as a day of remembrance and reflection. The VFW’s official proclamation in 2002 stated in part,

“Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

In 1999, Senator Dan Inouye introduced a bill to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30 instead of “the last Monday in May”. The same year, Representative Gibbons introduced a bill in the house saying the same thing. Both bills were referred to Committee. Every year until his death, Senator Inouye re-introduced the bill. If anyone had the credentials to speak for veterans everywhere, it was Senator Inouye; one of the few members of Congress awarded the Medal of Honor. I hope that one day, Memorial Day will return to the original May 30. Every year that passes, a bit more of the real meaning of the day is lost.

IGTNTLogoRevised-1-2We owe it to the dead to honor their memory. It does not matter the war, the cause, or the politics.  For every one of those marble slabs in the Gardens of Stone, some parent or loved one got that terrible, awful knock on the door.  When I was young, it seemed as if every other house had a gold star in the front window. Those memories are still fresh, even after all those decades. A series has been running on the Daily Kos blog called IGTNT (I Got The News Today). The series honors and remembers those Americans who lost their lives in combat or military operations in the war zone. Their names and pictures are there. Read them and weep for the loved ones left only with memories.

Flowres of the Forrest
From the Skene Manuscripts

Shortly after the bloody battle at Flodden Field in 1513, one of the members of Clan Skene composed Flowers of the Forest as a lament for the Scots who perished in that terrible battle. It was probably composed originally for the harp, however; it was quickly adapted for the bagpipes. It was lost for about a century, until it was found in the Skene Manuscripts as “Flowres of the Forrest.” The original pipe tune did not have lyrics. In 1756, Jean Elliot wrote lyrics for the tune.  Piping Flowers of the Forest has become traditional in the UK for military memorial services. The custom has spread to the US, and is often requested. Flowers of the Forest was piped for my son at his service in the National Cemetery. Because of the somber meaning of the lyrics and tune, pipers will not play or practice Flowers of the Forest in public. Public airing of the ancient tune is reserved for remembrance of the dead.

Flowers of the Forest refers to the soldiers. “The flowers of the forest are all wede away,” means they are all withered away, dead. Centuries later, the flowers theme would be reprised when Roy Williamson composed Flower of Scotland, which has become the National Anthem. This is Ronnie Browne singing Jean Elliot’s lyrics on the actual battlefield at Flodden, now peaceful meadowland.

Flowers of the Forest

By Jean Elliot, (1727 – 1805)

I’ve heard them liltin’, at the ewe milkin,’
Lasses a-liltin’ before dawn of day.
Now there’s a moanin’, on ilka green loanin’.
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.

As boughts in the mornin’, nae blithe lads are scornin’,
Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighin’ and sobbin’,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.

At e’en in the gloamin’, nae swankies are roamin’,
‘Mang stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin’ her dearie,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.

In har’st at the shearin’ nae youths now are jeerin’
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.
At fair or at preachin’, nae wooin’, nae fleecin’,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.

Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.

We’ll hae nae mair liltin’, at the ewe milkin’,
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighin’ and moanin’ on ilka green loanin’,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

Major Michael Davis O'Donnell
Major Michael O’Donnell

Vietnam had its iconic poems, tunes and laments as well. One of the more famous poems was by a helicopter pilot; Major Michael Davis O’Donnell.  This was written on New Year’s Day, 1970 at Dak To. Major O’Donnell was killed three months later when his helicopter was shot down with twelve souls aboard. His helicopter was hit by ground fire while rescuing troops who had come under heavy fire.

By Major Michael Davis O’Donnell

If you are able, save them a place inside you,
And save one backward glance when you are leaving,
for the places they can no longer go.

Be not ashamed to say you loved them,
though you may, or may not have always.
Take what they have left, and what they have
taught you with their dying, and keep it as your own.

And in that time that when men decide, and feel safe,
to call the war insane, take one moment,
to embrace these gentle heroes you left behind.

There are many poems, essays and songs appropriate for Memorial Day, and for Memorial Day weekend. Some have special meaning for me. Joe Kilna MacKenzie wrote Sgt. MacKenzie in memory of his grandfather, Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie of the Seaforth Highlanders. Joe lost his own battle with cancer in 2009.

About his grandfather, Joe wrote:

“To the best of my knowledge, and taken from reports of the returning soldiers, one of his close friends fell, badly wounded. Charles stood his ground and fought until he was overcome and died from bayonet wounds. On that day, my great grandmother and my grandmother were sitting at the fire when the picture fell from the wall. My great grandmother looked, and said to my grandmother “Oh, my bonnie Charlie’s dead”. Sure enough, a few days passed, and the local policeman brought the news – that Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie had been killed in action. This same picture now hangs above my fireplace. A few years back my wife Christine died of cancer, and in my grief, I looked at his picture to ask what gave him the strength to go on. It was then, in my mind, that I saw him lying on the field and wondered what his final thoughts were. The words and music just appeared into my head. I believe the men and woman like yourself who are prepared to stand their ground for their family – for their friends – and for their country; deserve to be remembered, respected and honoured. “Sgt. MacKenzie”, is my very small tribute to them.”

Sgt. MacKenzie was featured in the soundtrack of the movie, We Were Soldiers. The cover photo in the video is Sergeant MacKenzie.

Eric Bogle wrote several songs about the futility and waste of war, two of the most famous being Green Fields of France, and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.  Lesser known is My Youngest Son Came Home Today. Eric says Mary Black, as a woman and mother, sings it far better than he ever could. Here is Mary Black with My Youngest Son Came Home Today.

Memorial Day is for remembering and honoring those who died in the service of their country. Please share your own special remembrances, poems or songs.

175 thoughts on “Memorial Day, The Misunderstood Holiday”

  1. Mr. Murray,

    I was 22 when I went in the Navy, 27 when I got out, and started my studies the following month. But I knew already by that age that I can sift through my memories like marbles, discarding the ones I don’t want and keeping only the beautiful ones. I knew before I left that I’d be putting those particular ones in the incinerator of my mind.

    On my final day, I took my uniforms and medals and ribbons, and donated them to the thrift store on base. I had thought about burning them and decided against it. Perhaps in some small way they might bring value to someone else thus placed. I wanted no part of them.

    Closure. I was able in time to let go.

    But it surprises me as I now go about my life unaffected by them, to realize that they’re still. I’ve seen the ashes of those memories spring to life and bite deep into those that express favorable or even neutral sentiments for the fools responsible. I made my peace with those memories and the ashes I reduced them to, but woe to the unsuspecting that dare to raise them.

    For me, something beautiful came out of all this. I discovered that even the ashes of my dreams form themselves into the reality I dream of.

  2. As a Vietnam Veteran, it’s very difficult for me to visit Washington DC. I recall in 1967, after coming back from my tour of duty, walking in DC, and reflecting on the many monuments. I was struck by the “Mausoleum” atmosphere of death. Its one thing to remember our past, and try not to make the same mistakes over and over again, but I got the impression we were glamorizing a cult of death. Why is it that every 20 years or so, each generation must shed its blood on some far off battlefield? We continue to erect these marble and stone monuments to the fallen, as if war is a normal thing for the human race. I see it as aberrational behavior, bordering on the psychotic, especially in those chicken hawks who don’t seem to mind sending someone else’s son or daughter to die in some far off land.

    1. Ron,

      Thanks for the insightful comments. I concur with them all. Since returning to the United States from your tour in Southeast Asia, what have you read of interest concerning what befell our generation and what it means for the future? Or did you simply try to forget and get on with your life, as so many of us did? What caused you to remember again? What moved you to rejoin the discussion, sharing your own personal experiences? I would really like to know.

      For my part, I managed to go on with life after serving in Vietnam. I resumed my interrupted college education. I found reasonable work and raised my two sons to productive adulthood. But the memories never really went away. They would come back whenever I least expected them. I thought that I had “moved on” but in truth I never really did. I realize now that I never will. Something of Southeast Asia — and Asia in general — became a component part of me, and my disgust with America’s endless, pointless, meaningless “war” on [redacted] has only become more implacable with age.

      How about you?

      Best Regards,

      Mike Murry — Kaohsiung, Taiwan

    2. The problem is the hawks who send the men and women over to fight. It does not affect them personally, it is far away and someone else’s kid so for them it is just a vote or a signature on a paper.
      Thank you for your service., Mike, Nat, and all the others too.

  3. As a survivor of the “Peace With Honor” rearguard of the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam 1970-72), I know another failed Children’s Crusaded when I see one. Hence:

    Peace With Horror

    A leper knight rode into view
    Astride his mangy steed
    A harbinger of violence
    A plague without a need
    An apparition of discord
    Upon which fear would feed

    His unannounced arrival meant
    He’d lost his leper’s bell
    And yet his ugly innocence
    Could not conceal the smell
    His good intentions only paved
    Another road to Hell

    With mace and lance and sword deployed
    He vowed in peace to live
    Through rotting lips he promised not
    To take, but only give
    He swore to only kill the ones
    Whom he said shouldn’t live

    He did not speak the language and
    He did not know the land
    So why the healthy shrank from him
    He could not understand
    Why did they want the water when
    He’d offered them the sand?

    Committing to commitments he
    Committed crimes galore
    As steadfast in his loyalties
    As any purchased whore
    A mercenary madman like
    His slogan: “Peace through War”

    His slaying for salvation masked
    An inner, grasping greed
    A lust for living good and well
    While looking past his deed
    A dead man walking wakefully;
    A graveyard gone to seed

    He planned to leave in “phases,” so
    He said to those back home
    Who’d heard some nasty rumors rife
    From Babylon to Rome
    Of murders in their name meant to
    Exalt their sacred tome

    But still he needed to “protect”
    Some pilgrims on the road
    Who for “protection” glumly paid
    A portion of their load:
    For this decaying derelict,
    An object episode

    When asked to give a summary
    Of what he had achieved
    He shifted to the future tense
    The gains that he perceived
    And spoke in the subjunctive mood
    To those he had aggrieved

    “The future life to come portends
    More suffering than now.
    Through me alone can you avoid
    What I will disavow:
    The promises I never made
    While making, anyhow.”

    “I unsay things that I have said
    And say I never did;
    Then say them once again to pound
    The meaning deeply hid,
    Down where the lizard lives between
    The ego and the id.”

    “I’ve given you catastrophe
    And called it a success;
    If you want other outcomes then
    Step forward and confess
    That you believed a pack of lies
    With no strain, sweat, or stress.”

    “You know the meaning of my words
    Lasts only just as long
    As sound takes to decay in air
    So that you take them wrong
    If you assign significance
    To my sly siren song.”

    “A ‘propaganda catapult’
    I’ve called myself, in fact;
    A damning human document
    Which I myself redact
    At every opportunity
    With no concern for tact.”

    “If you think what I’ve done before
    Has caused me to repent
    Or dream that I, in any way,
    Might let up or relent
    Then I’ve got wars for you to buy,
    Or maybe just to rent.”

    “I’ve little time to live on earth,
    So why should I reflect
    Upon the dead and dying souls
    Whose lives I’ve robbed and wrecked?
    I care not if they hate, just that
    They know to genuflect.”

    Thus did the ruin of a world
    Continue in its curse;
    The great man on his horse relieved
    The faithful of their purse
    And gave them bad to save them from
    What they feared even worse

    So onward to Jerusalem
    He staggered as he slew
    In train with sack and booty that
    He only thought his due
    For spreading freedom’s germs among
    The last surviving few

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2008

  4. Remembering past and present crusades in the middle east:

    The Terrible Worm in his Iron Cocoon

    The terrible worm in his iron cocoon:
    The knight in his armor enclosed,
    Has gone off again on a global Crusade
    Which has left his own country exposed.

    His lines of supply girdle heaven and earth;
    Expenses grow terribly huge;
    While folks back at home find themselves unemployed,
    Yet they shrug, after them the deluge.

    Or so they suppose as the flood of lost jobs
    Washes over their living room floors,
    While off in Iraq, and Afghanistan, too,
    Their troops break in through the front doors,

    Then haul off the males in the household to jail
    For “being of age” to resist:
    A “crime,” we insist, ‘cause our saying makes “law,”
    Enforced by the gun and the fist.

    The troop in his tank behind sunglasses blank,
    In his man-from-mars uniform finds,
    That grabbing the native oppressed by the balls
    Beats winning their hearts and their minds.

    Now bankruptcy rules in the land of the fools
    Where the terrible worms got their start
    Then charged off to do what the world would soon rue
    As not worth the tiniest fart.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009

  5. Sometime In 2005, when the long-dormant feelings of helplessness, rage, and humiliation resurfaced and began to get the upper hand — they had never really gone anywhere, it seems — my loving and observant wife spotted the symptoms right away and advised me simply: “Find a way to turn the pain into power. Use it to create something.” Following her suggestion, I did some research and found that America’s latest crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan had disturbed many Vietnam veterans to the point where some of them started turning to poetry workshops as a means of creatively working through what former Georgia Senator and triple-amputee Max Cleland called “The Forever War of the Mind” (New York Times November 6, 2009). So I contacted my younger brother the California high school English and History teacher for suggestions. He responded by challenging me to write an ant-war poem that he could use as a example for his students. He gave me the verse format he wanted and I managed to come up with:

    Bread and Circuses
    (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

    Mired in heat and dust and sand
    Gallant band of brothers true
    Country’s service is their aim
    Death and maiming is their due

    In where angels fear to tread
    Foolish, dreaded leaders rush
    Bringing power’s fearsome groan
    Leaving only graveyard’s hush

    “By the pricking of my thumbs”
    This way comes the wicked pawn
    Drunk with drinking conquest’s draught
    Juggernaut goes crushing on

    Won with honest trifles’ lure
    Still so sure in dwindling light
    Now betrayed in consequence
    Of the senseless, needless fight

    Can this be the path they chose?
    How can those who serve inquire?
    Why has this rough beast come ’round,
    To be drowned and born in fire?

    Stillborn monster, undead thing!
    How we sing your praises high!
    Those whom we’ve made destitute
    Still salute and fight and die

    Hear the crowd’s roar! Feel the heat:
    Sizzling meat now roasting slow
    Do they die for reasons known?
    Or for only pomp and show?

    Who has wavered; who stands fast
    ‘Till the last good soul goes free?
    Who says “he” and who says “she”?
    Who but thee and who but me

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2005

    “Poetry changes nothing,” wrote Robert Frost. True, but as Edna St. Vincent Millay concluded in the last line of Dirge Without Music:

    “I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”

  6. bettykath,
    I do not think that slavery would have ended if the Civil War had not happened. Look how long it persisted even after the war. Without the war, Lincoln might not have been as adamant about the 13th amendment, imo.

  7. “leaving by staying” Orwellian

    I wish I could find the material I read that said that Europe (England?) was concerned about the economic growth in the US and wanted to slow it down, so the bankers funded both sides and helped instigate the Civil War. (Kind of like the US funding two sides and the CIA on the ground mucking these up.) I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the Civil War hadn’t happened. Slavery would have continued for awhile but eventually the slaves would have taken matters into their own hands. Many were already fleeing with aid to northern states which refused to return them to the south. It may have been bloody but it couldn’t have been worse than what actually happened.

    What if the true cargo of the Maine were known?
    What if there was no blockade of Japan, hence no Pearl Harbor?
    What if there was no Pearl Harbor, I mean, Twin Towers collapse?

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