Sunday, May 27, 2007

Obsolescent Memorial Day

"I wonder," said the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot, "what damn silly fool invented Sunday afternoon."
--Dorothy L. Sayers, "Clouds of Witness",58

And what damned fool invented Memorial Day? Was Armistice Day too Eurocentric? Really, I must not only oppose any and all future federal holidays, but ask for the rollback of some of those we already have. Labor Day, I grant, is even more expendable-- what intestinal fit of Progressivism convinced us to adopt "Labor Day"? If it served any use at all, it hasn't been put to it in living memory. Still, there is that matter of wearing whites-- curious, how this Edith Wharton's world detail is the only damn thing any American knows about this holiday-- and Memorial Day serves no comparable function except to remind us that Gas Prices Are Up, thanks of course to our own valiant efforts to Head Off For Memorial Day . . .
Veterans, to be chicly blase about it, are a prickly bunch. Since this is Sunday afternoon, a damn silly fool's time of it, I shall part ways with all my Stoic notions of high valor and put it thusly-- why are veterans so damned hermeneutical? In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, the Roanoke Star has turned white with mournful remembrance, but a few weeks ago the veterans began to grumble-- turn it back to red, white, and blue. Now, I'm sure all American citizens have as much right to lay claim to the symbolism of red, white, and blue, and for this reason I balk at the veterans' community's appropriation, which amounts in effect to: "Red, white, and blue means US, and you'd better get back to remembering US." Now, the present war will have to drag on a while yet (assuredly, it will) before there's any chance of the Roanoke region's being as starkly defined by the incremental casualties from Iraq as it has been by the nation's greatest lone-nut gun-massacre on record. And, since "Hokie Nation" (dismal phrase) commands quite a good deal of patriotism on its own count, it stands to reason that mournful white currently trounces the Red, White, and Blue.
Besides, who says white can't stand in for an army bled dry? I'm always pained by conservative protestations that those serving abroad are so sensitively attuned to the politics of war back home. Don't they really have quite enough on their minds? It's predictably easy to get caught up in the maudlin grip of sentimental symbolism once you're back home-- time enough for that if you make it out. Surely it's ill-advised, froma military standpoint, for soldiers in the field to take very much thought of these things at all. And I don't believe, in fact, that they do. The unsentimental (really TOO unsentimental) truth, acknowledged by so many, is that in combat one thinks of oneself and one's immediate comrades-- not of country, or idealistic international goals. My hope is that, for the exceptional soldiers, this is not in fact true. Animalistic demands for survival aside, the maudlin love of comrades, one's "band of brothers", is far ickier, morally trickier, and yes, nauseatingly homosocial. Kneejerk patriotism is far cleanier in fact-- mock patriotism if you will, but at least it is the loyal defense of the comparably Big Boat of Nationhood, and in a nation as diverse and expansive as the United States of America, we can still be forgiven for sometimes feeling that Our Interests are also Their's. Unlike, say, nationalistic Chechnyans, or even nationalistic Scots for that matter, our "nationalism" is not quite severable from our Jeffersonian committments, perverted as they sometimes are by smug overreach, personal grandiosity, or the malevolent misguiding hand of corporate interests; and being a nation very much at large upon the world, a rational consideration of our interests is never far asunder from consideration of the global picture.

But back to being a meanspirited ass. Just as our cup of federal agencies continuously runneth over, so too do our holidays and memorials. The World War II monument in Washington is the most notorious recent example. To the veterans who hankered in front of the Senate, saying quite brazenly that they wanted to see the memorial before they died, I answer quite boldly: you've waited this long, now do you want to ruin the Mall forever for future generations because you want to see some Mussoliniesque monstrosity before you go? Hell, didn't these guys see enough of these things when they liberated Germany? Alas, I fear Tom Brokaw and Steven Spielberg became history teachers to those who lived it. Having silently reintegrated themselves into society (concealing howsoever many psychical scars in the process, to whatever ruinous effect) and having watched with some indifference the revelations of Vietnam-era traumas, the elderly WWII vets found, at last, that their sufferings should be told. What was once public history-- the murderous march of Blitzkrieg, the invincible counterthrusts of Zhukov and Patton, Nimitz and MacArthur-- became "tell us your story, grandpa." The crusty dads who smacked their sensitive hippie offspring about finally came into their own in the Age of Oprah, an army of Anne Franks, the blighted youth of a sacrificial noble cause. --To be sure, this is not an opportunity all have availed themselves of (can one imagine George H. W. Bush even making a serious attempt at such?), but sufficient numbers came forward to bask in the belated attention, never mind they reserved a seat for Tom Hanks too at the Battle of the Bulge's reunion party (it's like he was practically THERE!). In short, World War II became big infotainment, and a rather greedy relationship was sprung between the media and the vets, diluting the credibility of both. The dizzy zenith was already reached when the Department of Veterans Affairs put out a William Castle-style warning for "Saving Private Ryan", to the effect that vets might have a heart attack!!! Needless to say, Terence Malick's artier, and truly artistic, and very violent "The Thin Red Line" received no similar, sensationalistic thumbs up, way up from the concerned Feds. It's taken for granted here, as Godard has bitterly and correctly diagnosed, that Spielberg can own anything-- our anointed Capra's take on History must always be True, and Conclusive. In collusion with Tom Brokaw, our modern Thucydides, it's World War II Inc. No wonder every Veteran of Foreign Wars is an armchair hermeneuticist.

But why can't Veterans Day suffice? Perhaps semantics is another fashionable skill of those who have had military service: we memorialize the fallen, and vet the Veterans. Take to the graves in May, and do an oral history project in November. Pale November is surely the hour for all these onerous duties: cannot soldiers appreciate the superiority of poetry over hermeneutics? Is it not better these things be done appropriately, with a sound sense of remembrance in its proper season? These fools on the highways are heading for the beach, not Arlington! So here then, is a sober, serious thought: November 11th, dyed in the false hopes of a War to End All Wars, is the most appropriate single date for modern peoples to commemorate the service of the living and the fallen. Soldiers, don't segregate yourselves. Let all nations do their work of mourning and remembrance for all who have borne arms and bled for their country on one cold November day.