Sunday, May 28, 2006

Under the Grass

Memorial Day began not in one place but in many. Hilltop cemeteries across the North, behind old stone churches and meetings, with long views across the farms. On the grass where fathers and mothers -- the ones who could find the corpse among the slain -- laid their boys.

After the war, everyone wanted to forget. Was there ever a war everyone didn't want to forget after it ended? But in the springtime the veterans, still boys themselves in '66 or '67, walked up the hill to the graves of their buddies and remembered. As a later generation of veterans walked to a long black wall in a gash in the earth in Washington, D.C., and remembered.

My first book was a Civil War book, and I went to the cemeteries to finish building a statistical picture of the community I was studying. I had built a skeleton from census records, fleshed it with draft enrollment books and regimental files in the National Archives. The last stop was the cold grass on the windy hills, with cicadas singing down in the creekbeds and no other sound. There where all stories end, on marble tombs, spalling from decades of acid rain and barely legible (I learned to go in the evening when the slanting sunlight revealed the eroded letters).

Under them lay boys full of honest virtues and dreams of glory, and criminals with nothing better to do but go get shot at. Every volunteer army is the same; the best of a generation, and some of the worst, and most somewhere between.

The granite shaft in the small city where I live now honors those who fell "in defense of the union in the War of the Rebellion." As palpable a lie as ever lured men to war; like killing your estranged wife and saying you did it in defense of marriage. All that political hot air, and they bought it.

Did they die for nothing, then? Of course not! Look around you. Look at the faces of people at work or play. They never knew it, those soldiers, but they allowed all this to happen. What they did re-set this nation on its foundation and set men, women, and children free.

And there I'd better stop, lest I break one of my own rules. This time last year I wrote about two of my ancestral relations who died in that war. That's one of them on the tombstone at the top of the post.

When that post reached the point where a blogger typically ties the past to the present and attempts to turn the reality of that generation into a moral lesson to this one, I stopped. And I'll stop here now, saying what I said then:

What can you say about that? You could remind your anti-war friends That he was a not entirely willing participant in a not entirely legal war, in which a lot of basic American rights were overturned by a president elected by a minority of the voters. No, that's wrong. That's turning a dead man into a rhetorical trope. It takes him out of his context and his time, uses him to advance a present-day argument that has nothing to do with him. That's not what Memorial Day means. That's not what honor looks like.

This holiday began as a private affair, among the veterans themselves. In my part of the world, at first, they marched out to the cemeteries together, black and white, a truly remarkable thing in the old segregated North. Then the civilians and the politicians got hold of it and it became about speeches and contemporary matters and the blacks and whites stopped mingling.

Every attempt to use Memorial Day for any purpose but honoring the dead is unseemly. The day belongs to the individual man or boy who went to do a duty, with whatever mix of willingness and fear, and died doing it, as he knew he might. Any thought that goes much beyond that risks desecration.