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Reflections on Memorial Day

Posted: May 28, 2012 - 12:00am

In his now-forgotten statement proclaiming Memorial Day, the now-forgotten John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, urged Americans not to forget those who had died in the Civil War. It was only three years since the guns were silenced. The country was stitched together but still torn asunder. Much grief and hurt remained.

So Logan, who in time would become a senator and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for vice president, saluted his fallen comrades as “the reveille of freedom to a race in chains” and described their deaths as “the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” He issued another call to arms, rallying veterans and civilians alike to visit the tombs of the fallen. His remarks began a great American tradition that became a great American holiday:

“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”

In this statement, itself an artifact from a time long past, there are echoes of perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered on these shores, the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, who vowed that the nation would “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

That phrase now is on a metal plaque at the entrance of the Department of Veterans Affairs and is enshrined in the American social compact, one of the few elements of our heritage beyond debate and insulated from partisan pressures.

For those of a certain age, which is to say younger than about 60, this day’s early popular name also is all but unknown. But for generations it was known as Decoration Day, and the meaning of that name is clear in Logan’s remarks. When he said, “The consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security,” he was speaking of decorating soldiers’ graves.

Today we garland the graves symbolically as well as literally, for there is a new burst of respect not only for the fallen but also for all those who have risen to the military needs of the country.

Last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll attracted much attention for its finding that support for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were within the poll’s margin of error. But I was drawn not to the political horse race, but to another finding deep in the poll data — that 76 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in the American military.

That’s a very high rate of confidence, especially when you consider that in the same poll only 42 percent said the same thing about the presidency.

Americans aren’t in a new burst of patriotism, but they are in a new burst of appreciation for the military. You see it everywhere.

I’ve been to baseball games in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Boston in the past few weeks and at each park, returning veterans were introduced and honored. It was perhaps a public-relations decision on the part of the home teams to present them, but it was the individual choices of tens of thousands of people to stand in respect and appreciation for them, to cheer them in thanks, and perhaps to feel the telltale moisture of emotion in their eyes as they did so.

No one commanded those tens of thousands to feel that way. They just did. If you comb through the data from the WSJ/NBC News poll and others, you will see that this appreciation has been on a general upswing for more than a third of a century. The level of confidence in the military stood at 58 percent in June 1975. That was a few weeks after the North Vietnamese captured Saigon, ending a sorrowful chapter in American history in a sorrowful way. Today, confidence is 30 percent higher than it was then.

The data have other intriguing findings. In December 1988, just before the collapse of communism, the level of confidence in the military was at only 46 percent. Three years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall but, almost certainly more relevant, after the first Gulf War, the confidence level was at 78 percent. It reached 85 percent in January 2002, just after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks and the beginning of the Afghanistan offensive.

The military has had many failures in recent years, some because of poor strategic thinking in Washington, some because of poor behavior in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither the war in Iraq nor in Afghanistan went even remotely according to plan, though students of the military know that while the first casualty of war is truth — Sen. Hiram W. Johnson’s great insight from 1918, and a sober reminder to all of us in the journalism trade — the second almost always is the carefully scripted plan for the conflict. In that regard, American military planners of the 21st century are part of a great tradition leading back to Andre Maginot and beyond. What is different now is public approbation for the combatants themselves. Some of it is shallow, or even phony, for the phrase “thank you for your service” sometimes bears the moral weight of “have a nice day.” Some of it is compensation for one of the worst sins of the Vietnam War, the distaste for the veteran who returned from an unpopular cause. Some of it is fashion.

Ordinarily I abhor or ignore fashion; I’m one of the few in my town or yours who needn’t change his wardrobe to attend a 1950s party. But let me say that this is a refreshing fashion. My family and likely yours has in its past the sadness of wartime loss. It’s our job, this weekend and all others of the year, to spend a moment in reflection and gratitude, and in hope that others will be spared the pain that takes no holiday, even this weekend.

• Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh.

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