The essence of Memorial Day in the United States is honoring the sacrifices of those who have given their lives in service to our nation. The national holiday provides an opportunity for reflection and solemn remembrance.
For many Americans as well, however, the latest Memorial Day weekend involved mainly opportunities for shopping, recreation and indulgence, more shopping, and fun and games of all sorts. Shopping symbolizes our superficial materialism. In a free country, you are free to choose.
The Internet relieves the burden of going to and from another physical location to make a purchase. That could help restore serious focus on Memorial Day.
Meanwhile, serious life-and-death reflection contrasts profoundly with varieties of self-centered frivolity. Today, more than in the past, personal recreation overshadows various forms of obligation, and the related serious collective community. Given the origins and purpose of Memorial Day, the contrast is especially stark.
One explanation is that coming together to honor our war dead strongly and rightly requires a conscious sense of public community. Arguably, traditional feelings of community steadily eroded with the vast migration from rural to urban areas, especially the growth of suburbia, during the course of the 20th century.
The iconic, popular artist Norman Rockwell had a brilliant talent for creating literal portraits that seemingly brought to life a warm-hearted, caring and generous American community. In fact, while Rockwell appealed to a vast audience, he idealized rather than revealed real life.
The main point for this essay is that Rockwell portrayed mainly scenes from small-town America. Those relatively isolated, stable populations could more easily share and articulate collective memories. The U.S. evolved into a mass urban and suburban national society, and diluted the resources and collective strength of small human communities.
Another explanation for many Americans choosing to ignore the true meaning of Memorial Day is that we have not been involved in a large extremely costly war for nearly half a century. The Vietnam War tore America apart — literally as well as figuratively. The public anti-war movement and response thereto began to develop violent dimensions.
The chaotic and bloody presidential politics of 1968 directly reflected the poisonous effects long-term of the Vietnam War on American society. One crucial factor was the Vietnamese revolutionary movement based in Hanoi, which demonstrated imagination, inventiveness, resourcefulness and sheer ability to absorb vast casualties and keep fighting.
Another factor was the unfortunate economic cleavages that Johnson administration war policies reinforced. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was an early opponent of the war. A major factor was the large number of funerals he and associates constantly attended. Working-class Chicago families and counterparts across the nation were doing the bulk of the fighting and dying in Southeast Asia.
Partly in reaction, President Richard Nixon quickly took steps to end the military draft and move to our present all-volunteer military. General William Westmoreland, the U.S. Army commander in Vietnam, departed following the Tet offensive early in 1968 and became Chief of Staff of the Army. That role was more suited to his abilities than top field command in an unconventional war — the volunteer military is a success.
A byproduct is the relative isolation of our military from wider society. This complicates the challenges associated with engaging veterans returning from combat areas with our wider American society.
Reintegrating as well as honoring returning veterans is vital, and involves far more than the perfunctory “thank you for your service.”
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact email@example.com.