Reflections on America’s noble warriors

“Their story is known to all of you. It is the story of the American man-at-arms. My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give.

“He needs no eulogy from me, or from any other man. He has written his own history, and written it in red on his enemy’s breast. But when I think of his patience in adversity, of his courage under fire and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.”

— Gen. Douglas MacArthur, May 12, 1962

My generation missed, by just a few years, the battles of what many consider the last “good” war — World War II. In truth, no wars are good when you come right down to it, but WWII did end in a convincing victory over incomprehensibly evil dictatorships in both Europe and Asia. And when the boys came marching home they were given heartfelt welcomes by a grateful nation that knew — knew! — their boys had saved the United States from monstrous tyranny.

Those of us born in the early 1930s and after have never known real victory in the wars we were called upon to fight. Korea ended in an unsatisfactory stalemate that is a worrisome canker to this day. Vietnam — well, what can I call it except a black mark on America’s reputation for standing by those we give solemn promises to protect? The images from the fall of Saigon are graven in the memory of everyone who served in that sorry war. And I can only imagine how the wives and children, the parents and the siblings of the 58,000 young Americans who died there must feel. God bless them.

The final chapters in Iraq and Afghanistan are yet to be written, but the writing is clearly on the wall. History will record, I believe, that these wars too were unnecessary, not in the U.S. national interest, and not worth the blood and treasure expended to fight them. Yes, we were right to avenge 9/11 — absolutely! But we were terribly wrong to think we could succeed in transforming the political, economic and social realities in Iraq and Afghanistan into something more like our own. Nation building, what a farce we have made of it in the Muslim world (and elsewhere)! Do we never learn?

Memorial Day. A day to honor all the boys and girls who gave their lives for their country in good wars and in bad. Theirs not to question why; theirs but to do and die.

We did not call it Memorial Day in the 1930s, when I was growing up on a farm not far from Gettysburg. Then, in our neck of the woods, it was “Decoration Day.” The first large observance of Decoration/Memorial Day was held on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. Patriotic speeches and prayers were delivered from the veranda of the mansion that before the Civil War was the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Among those present were President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. After opening ceremonies, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home, and veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic scattered flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate dead.

Years earlier, similar observances had been held in more than two dozen cities and towns, North and South, that claimed to be the birthplace of Decoration Day. One of these is Columbus, Miss. On April 25, 1866, a group of local women gathered to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers fallen in the battle of Shiloh. Nearby, they noticed neglected Union graves. The women placed flowers on these as well.

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., to be the “official” birthplace of Memorial Day, the name that had gradually taken hold. Waterloo had held a ceremony on May 5, 1866 (two weeks after Columbus, Miss.) to honor local veterans who died in the Civil War. Did this settle the controversy? Not really. “Confederate Memorial Day” is still observed in at least half a dozen Southern states, including South Carolina, on days other than that declared by Congress.

After World War I, May 30 became a day to honor the dead in all America’s wars, not just the uncivil Civil War. In 1971, Congress declared the day to be a national holiday, a holiday observed on the last Monday in May (to give everyone a 72-hour liberty from work). Only Christmas and New Years retain, so far, a date certain on the calendar.

Requiescat in pace. R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. A retired naval officer, he is a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.