A few days ago I was reading another blog, and was stunned and appalled to read this opening line in a post (emphasis mine):
“For most of us, Memorial Day is a joyous occasion. We may think of idyllic, lazy summer days of childhood, whole months away from school. Our greatest concern might well be the inevitable traffic jams created when large groups of people head for the same destination at the same time.”Many people mistake Veteran’s Day for Memorial Day. The day does not celebrate the veteran. It is a day of remembrance for those who never had a chance to become a veteran.
Veteran’s Day is November 11, formerly called Armistice Day. In the UK, November 11 is Remembrance Day, similar to Memorial Day. The significance of the date is the end of World War I. Armistice was signed at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. The exact origin of the custom of decorating the graves of those who gave all in service to the country is shrouded by the mists of time and folklore. Memorial Day became official when General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued his General Order No. 11 on 5 May 1868.
The first official Memorial Day observance was 30 May 1868. On that day, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Every year until 1971, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. In 1971, the National Holiday Act of 1971 was passed, making Memorial Day part of a three-day weekend. When Memorial Day became just another long weekend with a day off from work, it began to lose its meaning as a day of remembrance and reflection. The VFW’s official proclamation in 2002 stated in part,
"Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
In 1999, Senator Dan Inouye introduced a bill to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30 instead of "the last Monday in May". The same year, Representative Gibbons introduced a bill in the house saying the same thing. Both bills were referred to Committee. Every year until his death, Senator Inouye re-introduced the bill. If anyone had the credentials to speak for veterans everywhere, it was Senator Inouye. He was one of the few members of Congress to have been awarded the Medal of Honor. I hope that one day, Memorial Day will return to the original May 30. Every year that passes, a bit more of the real meaning of the day is lost.
We owe it to the dead to honor their memory. It does not matter the war, the cause, or the politics. For every one of those marble slabs in the Gardens of Stone, some parent or loved one got that terrible, awful knock on the door. When I was young, it seemed as if every other house had a gold star in the front window. Those memories are still fresh, even after all those decades. IGTNT (I Got The News Today) has been running on the Daily Kos for years. The series honors and remembers those Americans who lost their lives in combat or military operations in the war zone. Their names and pictures are there. Read them and weep for the loved ones left only with memories.
Shortly after the bloody battle at Flodden Field in 1513, one of the members of Clan Skene composed Flowers of the Forest as a lament for the Scots who perished in that terrible battle. It was probably composed originally for the harp, however; it was quickly adapted for the bagpipes. It was lost for about a century, until it was found in the Skene Manuscripts as "Flowres of the Forrest." The image at the left is the only known copy of the original manuscript score. The original pipe tune did not have lyrics. In 1756, Jean Elliot wrote lyrics for the tune. Piping Flowers of the Forest has become traditional in the UK for military memorial services. The custom has spread to the US, and is often requested. Flowers of the Forest was piped for my son at his service in the National Cemetery. Because of the somber meaning of the lyrics and tune, pipers will not play or practice Flowers of the Forest in public. Public airing of the ancient tune is reserved for remembrance of the dead.
Flowers of the Forest refers to the soldiers. “The flowers of the forest are all wede away,” means they are all withered away, dead. Centuries later, the flowers theme would be reprised when Roy Williamson composed Flower of Scotland, which has become the National Anthem. This is Ronnie Browne singing Jean Elliot’s lyrics on the actual battlefield at Flodden, now peaceful meadowland.
Flowers of the Forest
By Jean Elliot, (1727 – 1805)
I've heard them liltin', at the ewe milkin,'
Lasses a-liltin' before dawn of day.
Now there's a moanin', on ilka green loanin'.
The flowers of the forest are a' wede away.
As boughts in the mornin', nae blithe lads are scornin',
Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.
Nae daffin', nae gabbin', but sighin' and sobbin',
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.
At e'en in the gloamin', nae swankies are roamin',
'Mang stacks wi' the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin' her dearie,
The flowers of the forest are a' wede away.
In har'st at the shearin' nae youths now are jeerin'
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.
At fair or at preachin', nae wooin', nae fleecin',
The flowers of the forest are a' wede away.
Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.
We'll hae nae mair liltin', at the ewe milkin',
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighin' and moanin' on ilka green loanin',
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.
Vietnam had its iconic poems, tunes and laments as well. One of the more famous poems was by a helicopter pilot; Major Michael Davis O’Donnell. This was written on New Year’s Day, 1970 at Dak To, Vietnam. Major O’Donnell was killed on March 24, 1970. Helicopters from the 170th were sent to extract a Special Forces long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) team that had come under heavy fire. There were eight souls on board Major O'Donnell's helicopter when he took off. His helicopter was hit almost immediately and crashed. Despite heroic efforts by the other pilots, they could not get close to the burning wreckage due to withering fire. The crash site was found in 1998. It was not until 20 June 2001 that the recovery and identification of the remains was made pubic. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
By Major Michael Davis O'Donnell
If you are able, save them a place inside you,
And save one backward glance when you are leaving,
for the places they can no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say you loved them,
though you may, or may not have always.
Take what they have left, and what they have
taught you with their dying, and keep it as your own.
And in that time that when men decide, and feel safe,
to call the war insane, take one moment,
to embrace these gentle heroes you left behind.
There are many poems, essays and songs appropriate for Memorial Day, and for Memorial Day weekend. Some have special meaning. Joe Kilna MacKenzie wrote Sgt. MacKenzie in memory of his grandfather, Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie of the Seaforth Highlanders. Joe lost his own battle with cancer in 2009.
About his grandfather, Joe wrote:
“To the best of my knowledge, and taken from reports of the returning soldiers, one of his close friends fell, badly wounded. Charles stood his ground and fought until he was overcome and died from bayonet wounds. On that day, my great grandmother and my grandmother were sitting at the fire when the picture fell from the wall. My great grandmother looked, and said to my grandmother "Oh, my bonnie Charlie's dead". Sure enough, a few days passed, and the local policeman brought the news - that Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie had been killed in action. This same picture now hangs above my fireplace. A few years back my wife Christine died of cancer, and in my grief, I looked at his picture to ask what gave him the strength to go on. It was then, in my mind, that I saw him lying on the field and wondered what his final thoughts were. The words and music just appeared into my head. I believe the men and woman like yourself who are prepared to stand their ground for their family - for their friends - and for their country; deserve to be remembered, respected and honoured. "Sgt. MacKenzie", is my very small tribute to them.”
The piper heard here is Donnie MacNeill, former Scottish National Champion piper. Sgt. MacKenzie was featured in the soundtrack of the movie, We Were Soldiers. The cover photograph on the video is Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie.
Eric Bogle wrote several songs about the futility and waste of war, two of the most famous being Green Fields of France, and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. Lesser known is My Youngest Son Came Home Today. Eric says Mary Black, as a woman and mother, sings it far better than he ever could. Here is Mary Black with My Youngest Son Came Home Today.
I posted most of this Memorial Day diary this morning at the Jonathan Turley blog. In response to a couple of comments disrespecting the dead and their families, a commenter, "Nameless Vet" responded. His response is quoted here:
For those of you who are anti-war, I understand your feelings, and I want you to know that I and tens of thousands of others like me, served so you have the freedom to express those feelings, and I do not begrudge you the right to express them.
That is what America is about, at it’s core. Freedom.
But this day is NOT about how YOU feel about war, war profiteers, patriotism, the military, or any of that.
This day is about my brothers and sisters who gave their lives defending an ideal.
Many of us were young and naive, and yes, idealistic when we served.
We went to France, Germany and the south Pacific.
We went to the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia.
We went to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
We died on the beaches of Normandy, Anzio and Pelelau.
We died in the deserts of north Africa and the middle East.
We died in the jungles of Vietnam, Africa and Grenada.
We died in the snows of Inchon, and the Ruhr, and Helmand province.
We died in training accidents.
We died of enemy fire…and friendly fire.
We died on, above and beneath oceans all over the globe.
We were marines, and airmen, and soldiers, and sailors, and coast guardsmen.
We were someone’s brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, daughters, and lately, perhaps someone’s mother.
Someone missed us, someone died a little when we died, someone cried, and someone held a flag and watched a coffin being lowered into a grave.
Sometimes, the coffin was empty.
So regardless of how you feel about war, or the military, take a moment, and remember the ones who will never come home, or who came home silent forever.
We believed, most of us, in what we were doing.
Even if we didn’t, we still did it to the best of our abilities, and tried not to let our fellow squadmates/crewmates/aircrewmen down.
Please do not denigrate that sacrifice.
If you have special remembrances, poems or songs, please share as much as you are comfortable sharing.