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Erin Bartram: As Chris wrote in our Memorial Day post, the history of the holiday is a complex one. The nature of the holiday as it’s currently framed – one of remembrance and memorializing – means that those complexities are still with us. In recent weeks, we’ve seen and discussed controversy over the removal of public monuments, and much of that controversy comes from the fact that we are talking about “memorials,” physical objects that are supposed to commemorate something or someone we want to remember. Celebrating Memorial Day can be difficult for historians, just as the monument controversy was. Today, Chris and I are joined by David Mislin to talk about how we, as historians, think about Memorial Day and how it’s celebrated today.

Chris Bouton: In writing the post yesterday, the thing that struck me most from rereading David Blight’s chapter about Decoration Day was the way in which celebrations of Memorial Day initially had these overtly political meanings. Defining the Civil War in this emancipatory way, but over time dropped them in favor of something more superficial. Celebrating the fact that soldiers fought and not what they fought for. And I find that type of remembrance deeply troubling. But it’s one that we find everywhere in modern America and especially post 9-11.

Erin: It certainly fits with the “Support the troops” narrative we heard in the last two wars.

David Mislin: Yeah, I think that’s right. I’m a big fan of the article James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic a couple of years back on how the US has become a “chickenhawk” nation. We “support the troops” in a way that’s minimally inconvenient for us, without thinking about the larger implications of the military. To me, that’s Memorial Day in a nutshell.

Chris: That’s a great way of putting it. I went to a Cubs game in April and there’s the national anthem, God Bless America, the honoring of the troops etc. All this minimally invasive but rather hollow celebrations. Why do we have to play the National Anthem at a sporting event? 1. It’s a terrible song. 2. What does have to do with baseball? Do I have to sing God Bless America every time I watch TV?

Erin: I wonder if it might not be useful to talk about how all three of us experienced Memorial Day as children and adults, too. I have a very particular experience of it, but I’m not sure how common it is.

David: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea, Erin. In thinking about this chat, I was struck by how much difficulty I was having separating thinking about Memorial Day as a historian from thinking about my own experiences of it growing up.

Erin: Memorial Day is pretty much the biggest day of the year in my small CT town. We have an enormous, long town green, and the whole town comes out for the parade, the ceremony run by the Legion, hot dogs at the historical society. The parts of the ceremony are absolutely ritualized at this point, and yet there’s always 3-4 screwups even though we’ve all done it a zillion times. It is about as Norman Rockwell as you can get.

The one thing that changes every year is who the speaker is, and that’s where I’ve seen the change in my life. The refrain in the ceremony is about the men and women who lost their lives to protect our freedoms, so that we could live free, etc. When I was a kid, all of the speakers were from the Greatest Generation, and the speeches fit the framing narrative to an extent. As we moved into the Vietnam generation, and some Iraq/Afghanistan speakers, things got different. We had the obstetrician in town talk about how he was a doctor stationed at Dover AFB, where all the bodies from Vietnam came. We had a speech about PTSD from a recent vet. And this year, we had the nephew of the last casualty our town had, the son of the first selectman, who died in 1967.

David: That’s really interesting. Out of curiosity, how did the Greatest Generation react to the shifting tone?

Erin: I mean, part of the reason they stopped giving the speeches is that they all passed away, but the ones who remained actually seemed okay with it. Unsurprisingly, they were never as rah-rah about the day as the townsfolk who didn’t understand what it meant to be at war and see your friends killed.

Chris: In Beverly, we had a similar experience. There was a parade, which I marched in as part of the high school band, and as a boy scout we planted flags on graves since our hosting organization was a church. But it also had this, almost secular part of it, which was the coming of summer. School was almost out and the weather had turned nice.

Erin: I never understood till adulthood why we could have so much God talk at a public event – but it was sponsored by the Legion, not the town.

David: For my family, Memorial Day was also really important, but in a far more superficial way. There was an obligatory trip to the cemetery, but it was much more in line with Chris’s experience. It started summer: we got the grill out and planted the garden.

Erin: Did either of you have family who were in the military?

Chris: Both of my grandfathers were in the military during World War 2, but neither lived nearby, so we never saw them for the holiday. And neither ever talked about their service.

David: Yeah, which is what made it so strange. Both my grandfather and great uncle were in WW2, and my grandfather talked — a lot — about the war. But there was a strange disconnect between Memorial Day and the war.

Erin: My grandfather and his father were both career Navy, and an uncle on the other side of the family was also career Navy and serving when I was a child. (Which is why I always frown when we use “soldiers” as a generic term at these events. Beat Army!)

But it brings up one of the other issues with “remembering” on Memorial Day. We all heard the caution not to thank vets for their service, because Memorial Day is for those who died, Veterans Day is for everyone else. But Memorial Day ends up being about those who lived anyway, and our ceremony always had a moment of silence and read the names of vets from town who had died over the past year.

Chris: In practical terms, the differences between the 2 holidays seem to be a distinction without a difference in terms of the way we as a society celebrate them.

David: One of the things that happened in my family is that Memorial Day became a day for remembering the family dead. We’d go to the cemetery not for the purposes of honoring war dead but rather to visit the graves of great-grandparents and others who had died. Did either of you have anything like that?

Erin: Without engaging with history, it’s impossible to celebrate Memorial Day as its meant to be celebrated. It inevitably turns into Veterans Day because you rely on living vets and living memory.

David: Right. Or it becomes what my family turned it into, which seems like the other option.

Chris: We weren’t big on visiting family graves, as we didn’t have many nearby.

Erin: We didn’t do that, but I think a lot of people did. Our little town has like, 14 cemeteries, so I might not have seen it happening.

David: We weren’t either, on the other 364 days of the year.

Chris: David, where did you grow up?

David: Upstate NY, near Albany. But my extended family was near Buffalo.

Chris: So we all grew up in the Northeast. I grew up just north of Boston. So I wonder how much of our experiences were shaped by the region in which we grew up.

Erin: My Navy grandfather retired to NC. I wish I’d asked him what Memorial Day was like there. None of our ceremonies ever made the connection to any war that would be outside of living memory. I wonder how different they would be if they did.

Chris: Beverly was founded in the 1630s, but I don’t remember there ever being a discussion of anything prior to WW2. Maybe the odd reference here and there, but nothing stretching from the Revolution to the present.

David: I feel like WW1 loomed large but in a very vague sense.

Erin: When I was a kid, the ceremony was at the Civil War monument in town. Like many other towns, we built a memorial wall in the 90s, and moved the ceremony there. I noticed yesterday A) there are a ton more people on it from the War of 1812 than any recent war, and B) it’s got nothing before independence, which I guess makes sense, but still. (My town wasn’t established till 1739 – it was the last uncolonized place in the colony) This was the original monument.


by the Town of Sharon

In memory of the brave

Men who enlisted from

This township in the war

of the Rebellion and fell

In the struggle to maintain

The Union

Oh, Chris, you should petition Beverly to include the dead from Metacom’s War

Chris: I’m sure many a Puritan colonist or their descendants died fighting Native Americans.

Our parade ended at the Veterans Park downtown, and I believe that had a monument to WW2.

Erin: I mean, it’s interesting to think about what Memorial Day could be if it were about thinking about all the wars the US has participated in and what exactly these people died defending.

David: Building on that, I actually had a second framing question

I’ve been reading Philip Gorski’s new book American Covenant, which basically argues that the US needs to develop a renewed civil religion. And one of his laments is that our civic holidays, like Memorial Day, have been commercialized.

So I guess I’m wondering two things: 1) is he right that the US would benefit from having shared national holidays that actually have some meaning? and 2) what would we, as historians, want Memorial Day celebrations to look like for it to actually reflect the past?

Erin: He should come to my town. But then again, my town doesn’t even have a box store, so commercialization has largely missed it altogether.

David: When I was in high school, my town got a box store and I was so excited for it. I’m so ashamed of my 17-year-old self.

Chris: I’d agree on the commercialization part, but I’m unsure about the renewed civil religion part.

The commercialization part is pretty obvious I think and we don’t need to look too hard for the evidence. See car dealerships offering Memorial Day deals or the way that grocery stores cycle through their seasonal candies and merchandise. We’ve been heading towards Memorial Day since Easter.

Erin: I think the inscription on my town’s CW monument shows how hard it would be to have a “shared” meaning for a holiday. The meaning inscribed in stone is “restoring the Union,” and that’s it.

As a historian, though, I’d love to have it as a day where we confront the complicated motivations and meanings of our wars

David: Well right, I think my point was less agreement about civil religion and more that we have this holiday anyway, so what, in a perfect world, could we do with it

Chris: Confronting the causes and meanings of the wars would be useful, but difficult. It’s hard to confront the idea that the service members we’re supposed to honor may have died for less than noble reasons. In fact, they have to die for noble reasons in order to justify celebrating them.

Erin: It would also involve confronting why people fought, which I think people have already had to do as the Vietnam generation cycles through. The guy memorialized in our ceremony yesterday had volunteered to fight (and the reason given? he was appalled at reports of North Vietnamese atrocities visited on women and children), but for most of the wars we’re talking about, we’re thinking about draftees and people who needed money/couldn’t buy their way out.

That’s a great way of putting it, Chris. What do we do with people who died in what now seems to be a senseless war? We make all wars about “Defending our freedom” in some vague way, but how do you fit 1812 in there? Or the Mexican-American War? More to your point, David, would one good approach be separating the meaning of the war to the state and its meaning to the people who fought in it?

Chris: I think that would be a good start. Unsurprisingly I’m in favor of making it more complex.

David: Yeah, I agree. Though it would also force people to grapple with the reality of a coercive state.

Erin: Yeah, is there any “honour” in dying in a war you signed up for because you needed money or you fought for because the state made you.

David: When we talk about wars to “defend our freedom,” it short-circuits the ugliness of the draft.

Erin: Absolutely. And when we avoid certain wars, we avoid talking about the ugly/misguided reasons that people volunteered. Oddly enough, in some threads of the national narrative, the Civil War becomes the one where people just fought because it was their country and they had to, rather than supporting the cause.

Chris: These suggestions also push us to strip away the facade of war and confront its realities. Realities that those who fought in wars were well-aware of. It’s something that echoes through history, the glories of combat, the marching off to war to fight for some greater cause. It recurs throughout American (and world) history.

Erin: It’s hard because, as a historian, you’re listening to these speeches and just thinking “it’s so much more complicated than that!” But it can also seem cruel to say “your ancestors fought and died so that US imperialists could make money.”

Chris: Unsurprisingly, people take that personally.

Erin: How are the Sioux Wars a part of Memorial Day, for instance?

Chris: Well, they’re not because it’s too complicated. Holidays like Memorial Day present the same challenges that we face in the classroom. Debunking popular myths and introducing historical thinking and complexity.

David: But I keep coming back to the question of whether a day of remembrance is the right time to introduce complexity and start debunking myths.

Chris: It’s a great question.

David: Erin’s use of the word “cruel” seems right.

Chris: Because on the one hand you want to be respectful and on the other hand you want others to understand what precisely they died for and that may not align with what they themselves think or what they’ve been taught.

Erin: I think I’d be satisfied if we could simply shift it more towards remembrance of these people and their lives. Memorialize people and think about what it meant for them to die, and think about the wars and motivations in complex ways the rest of the year. I mean, yesterday I looked up the first guy on our wall with a star next to his name. His name was Christopher Cartwright, and he died in the war for independence. Of smallpox.

(I only bring up the smallpox death because it seems like these earlier deaths might usefully complicate our narratives about what it means to die in war in a way that takes us away from the “meaning” of the war. No matter what the war’s meaning, dying of smallpox is just a terrible death.)

David: Well and not just war. People have given their lives for other causes. To me, anyway, the two men who were killed in Portland last weekend deserve a Memorial Day as much as soldiers who die in war.

Erin: Absolutely.

Chris: Agreed.

Erin: Fighting and dying for the cause of Civil Rights in America is deserving of a Memorial Day.

Chris: We seem to be talking about a broader definition of Memorial Day.

David: Yes, definitely.

Erin: I think Memorial Day itself has been diluted, as we see with commercialization, and simultaneously the parameters of what we can say have become so narrow. Both are ways of avoiding complexity.

Chris: Agreed. So maybe we do have a civic religion, but it’s a shallow one.

Erin: Wait, Americans having shallow, highly-performative religion? Get out!

Chris: Hahahaha

David: And our national conversations about the day have become avoidant as well. I was listening to talk radio the other day and the subject was whether or not it’s okay to wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day”. This seemed like such a good opening for a meaningful discussion of what the day represents, but it was just a shallow argument about semantics. Though maybe the fact that it was being discussed at all is a good sign?

Erin: What conclusions did they come to?

David: They didn’t. They just read a bunch of emails and Facebook posts that all said different things.

Erin: Perhaps we should wish people a Thoughtful Memorial Day

David: I like “thoughtful Memorial Day”. I wonder if that’s the solution: to encourage people to take it as a day for reflection. Maybe the problem is with the civic ritual? They force conformity? Or do we think there’s value in that? (ritual, not conformity)

Erin: I mean, they don’t encourage dialogue or people even asking questions. At ours, audience participation involves reciting the pledge, and then singing along to whatever songs are sung. My best friend is the singer at our ceremony, and she always tries to wedge in “Let There Be Peace On Earth” or “This is my song.”

Chris: I think there’s value in the ritual. But there has to be some deeper meaning in the ritual.

David: That’s what I’m wondering. Is nuanced ritual possible? I fear that anything designed for public consumption automatically veers toward the least controversial message. I’m thinking of various 9/11 memorials I’ve been to that have all avoided discussing anything before or after the day.

Erin: I mean, things veer toward the least controversial message for the dominant group, which is even worse. Hence the framing of the Civil War, or excluding the Sioux Wars.

Chris: So to David’s point, does ritual naturally veer away from complexity and towards conformity. I’m not sure I have an answer to that question.

David: I’m inclined to think that it does. For ritual to stick, it needs to be palatable.

Erin: Shoutout here to my friend Mary Sanders’ awesome article on the 9/14 memorial service at the National Cathedral.

David: In the realm of policy, palatable means (both historically and in the present) means non-complex and non-threatening to conventional wisdom.

Chris: If pushed, I’d lean towards yes mostly because I can’t think of a counter-example.

Erin: I was imagining just now what a Quaker-inspired civil religion would mean for Memorial Day.

Boy, this one was a can of worms topic.

Chris: Yes, it is. And I’m annoyed because David asked a really good question about ritual that I don’t have an answer to, so now I need to think about it even more.

(Annoyed at myself for not considering it before)

(Wanted to clarify that)

David: Eh, I’ve annoyed myself with it, because I’m running potential counter-factuals. We’re modeling what we want Memorial Day to be!

Chris: Hahahaha, exactly.I need my legal pads to map out different possibilities. The curse of the analytical mind.

Erin: That seems like a good place to tie a bow around this one.

Chris: Yes, I think so.

David: Indeed.

But one random fact before we go. One of David Blight’s major points about Memorial Day is that it was quickly bound up in the rhetoric of the Lost Cause in the South. Randomly, earlier today I was reading a New York newspaper from 1871, and there was a complaint about southerners and the Lost Cause. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance, but I was really surprised to see discussion of the “Lost Cause” as a concept…and particularly a public repudiation of it…that early.

Erin: Wow!

Chris: I’m not sure of when it first appeared, but that does seem early. The Lost Cause-Memorial Day connection doesn’t fully begin to take hold until the mid-1870s. African-Americans weren’t having any of it at that time.

David: Yeah. I guess I’d always assumed that by the time the Lost Cause ideology was established, northerners were ready to be done with Reconstruction and shrugged it off. I was surprised to see pushback against it

Erin: Was it just a general NY newspaper?

David: I was the Independent, which was the Congregationalist paper. And it was pretty forcefully anti-southern, so it is the place I’d expect to see those ideas. I’m just surprised they were in circulation already.

Chris: That’s pretty cool!

How do you celebrate Memorial Day? What were the Memorial Days of your youth like? We’d love to hear contrasting accounts from those of you from outside the Northeast!