I sit writing this on Memorial Day weekend, a holiday originated in May 1865 by South Carolina black ex-slaves to honor the Union soldiers who died and were dumped in a mass grave at a confederate prisoner of war camp. Those ex-slaves knew the meaning of the sacrifices made by the Union soldiers. They had something to honor and, to show their respect and appreciation, they disinterred every Union soldier and reburied each one in an individual, marked grave.
They did the work by hand – not by contracting the effort out to some politician’s favored contributor. They didn’t make plans and seek bids. General Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, and all the reburials were done and the first celebration of honor was held on May 1 of the same year!
This Memorial Day, the head of the Republican Party has called the 13th Amendment a perversion of our Constitution. The Republican members of the Texas School Book Commission have voted to teach that Confederate President Jefferson Davis was the real hero of the Civil War, and that those Union soldiers died in vain. In Kentucky and here in California, Tea Party candidates are campaigning on a platform plank that the 14th Amendment should not apply to brown children whose parents are immigrants.
What does Memorial Day stand for in 2010? What prayers or honorable thoughts should we have, if we step away from the barbecue and put down our beer, however briefly?
We have another day to “honor” our warriors – Veterans Day. That holiday honors veterans with Christmas marketing pitches and “special deals” aimed at enticing vets to buy cars and appliances, making long-term loan commitments. It has become a commercial bonanza for banks and corporations. Is that what we want for Memorial Day?
Or might we use the day to reflect on the hundreds of thousands of young men and women (it is always the young, isn’t it) who have answered the call, who have given years of their youth, given parts of their bodies, and given their lives to serve the needs of their country, their neighbors, and their families? History is filled with the contributions of people who served when they didn’t have to. 2500 years ago, Horatius single-handedly held the bridge over the Tiber and saved Rome from an attacking Etruscan army.
In our own Revolution, Molly Pitcher is said to have carried water to Washington’s men during battle. Her work reminds us of another truth from the history of war – more warriors always die from disease and malnutrition than ever die from enemy action. Those who help keep our young service members alive are as worthy of our honor as those who sell the guns and bullets to the Pentagon.
Perhaps history’s most famous contributor to the health of warriors is Florence Nightingale (shown here). Nightingale organized and trained nurses to work in field hospitals, during the Crimean War. After the war she spent decades working to improve health care in the British military and in poor neighborhoods. Her success was so great, so immediate and so dramatic that the U.S. Army sought her advice during our Civil War (the Confederates didn’t – then, like now, Southern leaders were less concerned with the health of their troops).
Nightingale worked to save and heal the lives of wounded warriors. Which is more deserving of Memorial Day honor – her work to provide adequate care for wounded warriors or Republican proposals to slash medical care for them?
Which helps our nation more – Nightingale’s work to stop disease epidemics and consequences in impoverished neighborhoods or Teabag proposals to let squalor and disease spread, unchecked, while slashing budgets for basic sanitation, nutrition, education, and healthcare?
Florence Nightingale died before World War I started. But her work carried on in that war. In both WWI and WWII civilians manned the Friends Ambulance Unit which worked on battlefields, providing care to military and civilian wounded. These Friends (more commonly known as Quakers) put their lives at risk to save the lives of others — even of soldiers who rejected the Friends’ belief in a pacifist Christianity. Are they worthy of honor in the annals of our nation’s wars?
More recently, during the Vietnam War, Friends established hospitals in the war zones to treat the wounded when America’s politicians wouldn’t vote the funds to repair the damage the war was doing. Were their contributions any less worthy of our honor than the service of those they treated?
Some say that Memorial Day should only honor those who kill and die, and not those who treat and save. But wasn’t it General Patton who said that victory didn’t come from dying for one’s country? Staying alive in war IS victory. And so the work of keeping people alive should be as valuable as the work of killing.
Those who oppose honoring the caregivers on Memorial Day are those who also oppose holidays to honor men like Dr. King and Cesar Chavez. They do not want to honor those who work to save lives and they do not want to honor those who wage war against privilege.
But Dr. King was gunned down in a war to prevent civil rights – a war to preserve privilege. The battles in that war saw children, like Emmett Till, and young men like Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, killed, and churches bombed. That war saw (and still sees) farm workers killed for asserting rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
What day, if not Memorial Day, is appropriate to honor the sacrifices made on our own shores, by peaceful warriors, to give meaning to the sacrifices our warriors have made on distant shores?
This Memorial Day, Rand Paul will pause from counting his money, and Sarah Palin may pause while grilling wolf and mooseburgers, and David Drieir and his husband may crawl out of their Jacuzzi, each long enough to deliver a speech about how we need to rally in defense of BP and the rest of the beleaguered oil industry, or about how all of our national problems are caused by the brown people whom we can only properly exploit control if we repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and end all health and safety regulations.
As an alternative, why not step away from the grill, put down the beer, and for a moment or two, reflect on all the people who defend this nation’s great heritage: The teachers, who taught science when the school systems were controlled by religious fanatics; the doctors who helped women prevent pregnancy so they didn’t need to think about abortions; the workers who sat down in factories and farm fields until they were treated fairly; the students who sat-in and faced police dogs and fire hoses; the ministers and priests who went to prison for preaching that Jesus was not a warmonger.
And yes, reflect on all the young men and women who answered their county’s call – from Concord Green to Okinawa. Not huddling with their own clans or sects, but standing proud under one flag, based on one strong, vibrant Constitution. Obedient to the rule of law, not to the charisma of individual generals or demagogues.
Honor those whose work preserves this nation, in all of its complexity and splendor.