Memorial Day and the Foundations of Liberty
It’s a different kind of Memorial Day this year, not like the “good old days” of, oh… 2019.
Heck, it’s not even like early March, 10 weeks ago. Much of the nation remains locked down due to coronavirus — or rather, due to government reaction to coronavirus. But still, we remember.
“Not till the foe has gone below or turns his prow and runs,
Shall the voice of peace bring sweet release to the men behind the guns.”
We recall the fallen, those from recent times and into the past. We think kindly of those who served the country. Whether they fell on a distant field, or served honorably, came home and lived life until their ration of time ran out… It’s their day on the calendar.
Sometimes it’s a personal matter. Perhaps you served, or a spouse or child. You remember the old friends, the colleagues and comrades. Or your father or mother served. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Grandparents. Great-grandparents. How far back does your family go?
But even if you or your family are of recent lineage in the U.S., with no one who spent a single day in the national ranks, you’re still allowed to remember. Not to be presumptuous, but you should remember because you are here, benefitting from the country. We all drink from wells dug by others.
So let’s take some time to contemplate what today is really all about…
The holiday has roots in the Civil War. Early on, more than a few people were drunk on the moonshine of foolish optimism. Each side believed the fighting would soon be over. Northerners thought they’d rout the rebels. Southerners were convinced that they’d lick the Yankees.
But no plan survives first contact with the opponent, right?
Not long into the fight — the War Against Southern Rebellion; the War of Northern Aggression — the scope grew larger. Casualties mounted. Costs rose. Pain spread throughout the land.
With empty chairs at many a table, wives and mothers began to decorate the graves of fallen husbands and sons. Nothing too fancy, for the most part. Just a few flowers in remembrance.
Graveyards filled fast. Worse, they expanded. In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave one of his defining speeches — the Gettysburg Address — at the commissioning of a new cemetery.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President.1
“We are met on a great battlefield,” said Lincoln. “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
In 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, “Decoration Day” was established by a private organization of Union Army veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The head of the organization, Major General John Logan, set May 30 as the date, likely because by then it would be possible to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.”2
“Guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” said Logan. “Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
One early GAR “Decoration Day” ceremony was at the former estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., in Arlington, Virginia. Lee’s land was seized by the federal government during the war and used to bury Union soldiers.
About 5,000 people showed up at the first ceremony at Arlington. Spontaneously, many brought small American flags that they planted in the ground above each grave. It was the birth of a custom.
Today, Memorial Day is federal law, and that old flag-planting custom is tradition. At Arlington, it’s part of an impressive, heraldic ceremony maintained by the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, the famous “Old Guard.”
The order is called “Flags in!” And annually, soldiers carefully place hundreds of thousands of flags next to headstones.
“Flags in!” at Arlington. Well over 280,000 of them.3
Strangest thing, though… Over this Memorial Day weekend, many U.S. veterans’ cemeteries are closed or have tight restriction over who can visit.
No less than the National Cemetery at Arlington “is currently closed to the public.”4
If you have a “family pass,” you can still enter Arlington in small groups. But you must wear a facemask. Seriously, a facemask in a cemetery.
Take another look at that photo of the soldier planting flags… He’s wearing a facemask!
“The past is another country,” wrote British author L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.”
In the 1920s, Hartley began writing about Edwardian Britain as compared with Victorian times. Over subsequent decades he bridged deep valleys of contrasting time and changing tastes. And he highlighted yawning cultural chasms formed by the seismic events of World War I, and a quarter century later by World War II.
Hartley’s literary gift was to point out both obvious and subtle differences between before and after, between then and now.
And that brings us back to Memorial Day, this weekend, when the iron gates of the cemetery at Arlington are closed, and soldiers wear facemasks while planting flags in the grass above the graves.
This is not just another instance of how “the past is another country.”
Indeed, less than three months ago, we lived in a completely different nation. Now, we’re all in the firm grip of massive government. It’s to the point where even the national cemeteries are closed on — so-called — “Memorial Day.”
Is this what Lincoln meant when he spoke of remembering sacrifice so that the “nation might live”? That question pretty much answers itself.
Whatever kind of nation this used to be, it’s not the same anymore. Perhaps we, as a nation, really have reached the point about which Gen. Logan warned — that “we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Wearing a facemask is a minor matter, one might say. It’s a simple protective measure in a time of pandemic. No big deal, right? Just live with it…
Then again, wearing a facemask at Arlington has nothing to do with what “ought” to go on there, in terms of tending to the graves of old soldiers. Something darker is afoot.
It’s more like facemasks have become the latest fashion statement of a vast country that has plunged into a new version of an old Civil War.
Or, to use contemporary military terms, we’re in a “hybrid” civil war. What’s happening out there, across the plains of the Republic, is not kinetic battle such as with blue-clad soldiers fighting guys in gray.
No, we’re not shooting each other… not yet.
But across the landscape rages a deep-seated cultural and political fight over the basics of personal freedom versus government control.
It’s not just big things that are subject to fierce dispute either, like whether to build nuclear power plants versus more windmills to generate electricity. The government “control” thing — the exercise of power by the political class — has now reached the point where people aren’t able to get a haircut, go to a gym or even walk on beaches.
The new battlefield has been shaped over many decades. Across the culture, different factions occupy different high grounds. The simplified version is Red States versus Blue States, although good political maps show shades of color down to the county and township levels.
There’s a distinct setup for conflict here; it’s more than evident in education, religion, media, business and much else. There’s plenty about which people across the country absolutely do not agree, to the point of ugly disrespect.
Downstream from culture is politics and law. Again, different factions occupy different high grounds. Courts have certainly shaped the legal landscape, which is why nearly every recent judicial nomination or election has become a vicious dogfight on the best of days.
Legislatures and administrative bureaucracies have also done plenty to shape (and reshape) the day-to-day function of life. Indeed, the number of “criminal” acts embodied in American law is now in the hundreds of thousands, from sea to sea. It recalls the words of Stalin’s secret police head, Lavrenti Beria: “Give me the man, and I’ll show you his crimes.”
Meanwhile, there’s economics. Individuals tend to strive for their own self-interest. Yet over time the country has dramatically changed its overall opportunity profile. Over the past 40 years or so, the nation deindustrialized and transitioned to the much-hyped “service economy.”
Now, here we are… Just 10 weeks into a disease pandemic. The service economy has cratered, while much of the manufacturing base is overseas.
Long ago — long before this past March, to be sure — the proverbial powder was dry and primed for petty tyrants to take their arsenals of political control and crack down good and hard. Now in less than three months, the nation’s power-hungry politicians — and their enablers in the political-media-academic classes — have managed to strangle much of the country.
No, we don’t live in a wartime battle-scape of unburied dead bodies. But GDP is plummeting and unemployment is rising. We may well be looking at stagflation and the next Great Depression.
All this while the country is bitterly divided. Politically, there’s no end in sight. And too many bosses simply say, “Wear a facemask.”
This setup is not why we have national cemeteries. Not why we remember the dead and place flags next to headstones. It’s not why a proper military funeral includes a three-shot rifle volley… one for duty, one for honor and one for country.
As I said at the outset, it’s a different kind of Memorial Day this year. And it should remind us all how much at risk are the very foundations of liberty.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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