By the time you read this, Memorial Day 2018 will be a historical event.
This is because Congress decided to fix the observance of Memorial Day on the last Monday in May back in 1968 — a century after General John Logan announced that May 30 should be set aside to honor those killed in the Civil War. Logan actually didn’t have any official power to create this holiday for the nation, although he was a member of Congress. But he was the national leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of veterans who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The GAR was a pretty big organization, though, with hundreds of posts around the nation. There were even a few chapters in the South, and at least one post here in our neck of the woods. That post, located in Basin, left its mark on the community in 1909 by obtaining a couple of retired cannons, which stand guard in front of the Big Horn County Library a century later.
Such widespread, grassroots presence around the nation meant that a decree from the head of the GAR would be taken seriously, and communities and states around the nation began officially observing May 30 as the day to honor Civil War veterans by decorating their graves. The official name of the holiday was Decoration Day, but its popular name was Memorial Day. At first, the focus of the day was the more than half a million soldiers who died in the Civil War, but since World War I, the dead of all our wars have been honored. It was not a national holiday until Congress acted in the late 1960s. At the same time, they officially named it Memorial Day and, over the objections of many veterans and veterans groups, changed the day it was celebrated to the last Monday in May.
It seems to me Memorial Day has become not just a day to honor those who died in defense of freedom. Instead, it has become a celebration of patriotism in general, with a lot of flag-waving and speeches about the righteousness and greatness of our nation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at the risk of being branded an enemy of the Republic, I think we too often exaggerate our nation’s role in the world while demeaning the contributions of other nations.
For example, while it’s important to honor those who gave their lives in the service of our country, maybe we should acknowledge that Americans aren’t the only ones who made sacrifices in conflicts that shaped and defended the liberties we enjoy. Britain, for example, stood alone against Nazi Germany for many months, hoping that we Americans would come to realize that our freedom was in danger from fascist domination just as theirs was. Moreover, men from British Commonwealth nations such as India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand came to the aid of Britain, and native Indians at home went hungry as their crop production was taken to feed troops in Europe and the Pacific. They deserve to be remembered for their sacrifices, too.
Farther back in history, we might remember that the French fleet took casualties while playing a crucial role in the decisive American victory at Yorktown. Ironically, less than 25 years earlier, the British pushed the French out of what was to become the Northwest Territory of the U.S. after Yorktown.
Even farther back, people died in many forgotten battles that helped build the world that gave rise to our ideas about liberty. The religious wars during the Protestant Revolution were important as was the warfare that built Rome and then helped cause its decline. Even earlier, the battles fought by the Greeks, the Hebrews and empires ruled by Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and others shaped the institutions, religions and philosophies that were the ancestors of our own.
Obviously, we can’t decorate all those graves every Memorial Day, but I believe we should remember those who occupy them, because it would remind us that our part of the millennia-long story of mankind is only a brief episode. As Americans, we can point with pride to many — although not all — of our achievements, but we need to remember that the soil where those achievements took root is the result of centuries of human activity in that long-ago past. Doing so would temper the pride we have in our nation with a dose of humility.
This Memorial Day, we are being told that we are “Making America great again.” From what I have seen though, making us great appears to involve bragging about ourselves, and bullying or belittling other nations. That’s not the way to greatness. Being great also requires humility, and without humility, pride becomes excessive.
Excessive pride, one of the seven deadly sins, leads not to greatness, but to a fall.