By Jim Miller
Memorial Day wouldn’t be a holiday if not for the Civil War.
One version of the birth of Memorial Day pegs it as beginning in April of 1866 when four women in Columbus, Mississippi got together to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers. Then, as Deborah Fallows tells it in The Atlantic, “They also felt moved to honor the Union soldiers buried there, and to note the grief of their families, by decorating their graves as well. The story of their gesture of humanity and reconciliation is now told and retold in Mississippi as being the occasion of the original Memorial Day.”
Another version of the story has it that Memorial Day was the invention of black freedmen who gathered on May 1st to decorate the graves of soldiers—Union soldiers—who had died in Charleston, South Carolina as prisoners and “Martyrs of the Race Course.” In the words of historian David Blight, “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Even earlier than these unofficial commemorations, Walt Whitman remembered the dead in his great poem “The Wound Dresser.” In it, the speaker is “an old man” who has moved beyond the easy patriotism that makes us “beat the alarum, and urge relentless war” to see the truth: “was one side so brave? the other was equally brave.”
From there the reader is taken back to the field hospital where Whitman himself worked as a nurse:
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
The horror is unending but the speaker is undaunted in his efforts, holding to the work of care with courage and discipline:
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
And it is the selflessness of compassion that defines the heroism of the poem as the speaker unflinchingly tells us about “the crush’d head,” the “neck of the cavalry-man with a bullet through and through,” the “amputated hand,” and the “putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive.”
All of it makes you want to turn away but along with the speaker you steel yourself to bring solace to the those who lie hopeless and dying: “I am faithful, I do not give out,/The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,/These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)”
Indeed, rather than changing the channel, you go there with him where “many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.”
This is the truth that the old courage teacher leaves us with: only through unrelenting compassion can the senseless death and waste of war be redeemed.
How different is this from our antiseptic vision of war today where, for most Americans, it is about sending somebody else’s kid off—to suffer or die or kill some other person’s child we’ll never see or know in a country we don’t understand much about.
And this despite the fact that, as the Washington Post recently noted, “anyone born in the past 13 years has never known an America that isn’t at war. Anyone born after 1984 has likely seen America at war for at least half of his or her life. And that’s a lot of Americans.”
Still, all most of us do is stand and clap at the appointed time at the ballgame or turn the channel if the news gets too depressing. Indeed, with only 0.4% of Americans serving in the military it’s all too easy to simply tune out.
So it goes on endlessly, an eye for an eye in a world gone blind. Perhaps, in the spirit of Whitman, this Memorial Day we can turn our eyes and minds toward the suffering and the slain. Yes, turn our hearts and imaginations towards the thousands of American dead and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan since those wars began—then towards the hundreds of thousands or more Iraqis and Afghans who’ve died since the U.S. invasions of those countries.
Think of the dead and maimed young men and women, the helpless children denied a future, the parents bereft for the rest of their lives. Imagine the waste of innocent life.
Be faithful, do not give out.
Remember the dead so, perhaps, we can stop the killing.