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Needlessly Die

Memorial Day can obscure the horror of battle by aggrandizing wartime sacrifice

This Memorial Day, in the wake of President Biden’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, it is worth remembering that the first three-day Memorial Day weekend was repurposed 50 years ago by thousands of American GIs who had recently returned from Vietnam. Having witnessed firsthand what the United States was doing in Southeast Asia, these veterans decided that the occasion traditionally used to honor the war dead was the perfect opportunity to advocate for a peaceable future.

From the beginning, “Decoration Day,” as Memorial Day was originally called, has been riddled with contradictions. The rituals and traditions created to mourn the carnage of the Civil War and later to honor all of the nation’s war dead, including reading their names, decorating their graves and parading past them, reveal that the future life of the nation is widely believed to depend on perpetuating a cult of the dead. And while Memorial Day gives men permission to express grief, it also defines patriotic manhood as steely resolve on the battlefield. Most notably, Memorial Day can obscure the horror of battle by aggrandizing wartime sacrifice.

Many returning service members decided to reject not only the commercialization of Memorial Day, but also the holiday’s traditional premise that it was noble to die fighting a war.

In 1968, four years after President Lyndon B. Johnson sent troops into Vietnam, Congress further complicated Memorial Day when it proposed moving its observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May as part of a broader effort to create several three-day weekends throughout the year.

The Congressional Record reveals that while the argument was made that such a move would provide “substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation,” the economic reasons for moving Memorial Day were uppermost in everyone’s mind. Underscoring that long weekends would “increase the opportunities for pilgrimages to the historical sites connected with our holidays,” advocates for the Uniform Monday Holiday Act noted that it had the support of the National Retail Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

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Indeed, at no point in the deliberations did a member of Congress note that Memorial Day might or should become a more somber affair on account of the skyrocketing numbers of people killed fighting in Vietnam.

By the time the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1971, many returning service members decided to reject not only the commercialization of Memorial Day, but also the holiday’s traditional premise that it was noble to die fighting a war. They embraced the idea of mourning, but directly connected it to highlighting the horror of war itself.

Nothing made clearer their stance than a protest in Massachusetts organized by the New England chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and attended by over 200 Vietnam veterans.

The New England veterans planned to spend the nation’s first three-day Memorial Day weekend marching Paul Revere’s mythic midnight route in reverse. They notified the media that those participating would include veterans still rehabilitating at area Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Members of the news media were on hand to watch a veteran with metal leg braces push a paralyzed peer using a wheelchair at the front of a long line of veterans crossing over the Old North Bridge in Concord, a historic site where American colonists had first fired on the King’s troops. While the veterans’ long hair and beards signaled their embrace of the hippies’ message of peace and love, their grievous injuries coupled with their decision to retrace the Founders’ footsteps was an assertion that their dissent was born of their proven patriotism.

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Once the veterans arrived in downtown Concord, the still-able-bodied veterans, clad in jungle fatigues and toting realistic-looking M16s, staged a mock search-and-destroy mission. They screamed “di di mao” (pidgin Vietnamese for “get down”) at civilians who had agreed in advance to participate in the veterans’ guerrilla theater. As shocked bystanders looked on, the veterans soon had their victims shackled, searched and summarily executed. This performance made clear they were rejecting a holiday that demanded their willingness to die for their country — on the grounds that the United States had become an imperial nation.

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At the next stop, the select board protecting Lexington Battle Green refused to allow the veterans to sully the blood-soaked ground where colonists had been slaughtered by British troops with the political burdens of the present day. When the veterans ignored them and proceeded onto the Green, the select board ordered the arrest of over 400 people and held them overnight before busing them to court Sunday morning, where the veterans were finally released after residents rallied to pay their fines.

The then-largest mass arrest in Massachusetts history generated an unprecedented level of national attention and support for the dissenting veterans. When they arrived on the Boston Common on Monday afternoon, 10,000 people were waiting to participate in what the veterans had advertised as a “Memorial Day Alternative.” Fliers for the event featured a photograph of a happy boy as a means of posing an important question: Would honoring him on some future Memorial Day be worth the loss of his life on the battlefield?

The crowd that had welcomed the veterans to the Common with boisterous applause was stunned into silence moments later when the veterans proceeded to smash their Mattel-manufactured M16s into the ground. As the veterans ground every last shard of plastic under the heels of their jungle boots, the transformation of their angry sobs into exuberant cheers made clear what the purpose of Memorial Day could be: rejecting more war.

The afternoon’s program also included a Gold Star Mother whose son had been killed on a search-and-destroy mission in Vietnam. Patricia Simon joined the veterans in reimagining the holiday when she simultaneously mourned her son David and honored the antiwar cause with a poem written in 1941 by Archibald MacLeish. “Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing,” she intoned steadily, “we cannot say: It is you who must say this.”

A World War I veteran, MacLeish had written his first antiwar poem in 1926 after attending the dedication of the cemetery in Belgium where his war-slain brother was buried. In it, he revealed the empty nature of the politicians’ reverence for “hallowed” ground by alternating their thanks from a “grateful country” with stanzas expressing his profound grief at the loss of his beloved childhood companion. Later, after Germany bombed Guernica and invaded Poland, MacLeish wrote the poem Simon chose to read. A plea on behalf of his brother and all of the war dead, it asks listeners to make their untimely, brutal deaths stand for more than Memorial Day platitudes: “We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. Give them an end to the war and a true peace.

The veteran who took the stage next did what the poem asked. He spoke for the dead on the day meant to honor them by demanding an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Southeast Asia.

While the veterans and their supporters spent the rest of the afternoon listening to antiwar songs on Boston Common, 300 veterans of several different U.S. wars participated in a traditional Memorial Day parade in a nearby stadium. But with the Vietnam War having made clear the holiday’s contradictions, only 150 people showed up to watch them.

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The nation’s newspapers reported similar, dueling commemorations in towns and cities across the country.

The appropriation of Memorial Day by antiwar veterans in the spring of 1971 made it impossible for President Richard M. Nixon to escalate the war. Fifty years later, as we exit Afghanistan after 20 years, it again offers an opportunity to commit ourselves to a peaceable future.

Elise Lemire

Republished with the author's permission from The Washington Post.