I well remember Memorial Day because it was a big day as a boy growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Parades were a given, especially considering that World War II had recently ended and the Korean War was occurring. Active duty military units marched in these parades as did veterans from World Wars I and II. Many of the parade participants had lost limbs. It somehow personalized war.
They were the survivors. They, and all the others who marched, and all the spectators were there to honor those reposing peacefully in Arlington and other national cemeteries. The dead were the ones who left it all on the battlefield or on the bottom of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
For those of my generation who were born at the end of World War II and during the Korean War, who had family members who served, some killed in action, Memorial Day has a special meaning. Then came the Vietnam War. Those who answered the call have their own memories, to include loss of friends who never came home. War was and remains a big part of my generation’s life.
The Vietnam War divided this country as much as anything in my lifetime. Like everything else, though, time marches on, and the passions dissipate. Ronald Reagan, in dedicating the unknown soldier from the Vietnam War at Arlington National Cemetery, gave a speech that resonated throughout America. He made it okay to be a Vietnam Veteran. The nation has since generously paid tribute to the Vietnam dead and veterans of that war.
In 1939, the year Germany ignited World War II, combined with Japan’s aggression in the Far East, the United States had the 18th largest army in the world. Americans didn’t believe in large standing armies and we were perceived as weak because of it. But when the war tocsin sounded, Americans stepped up and answered the call. The Kaiser, Hitler, and Tojo soon found out that Americans can be aroused if their way of life is threatened, that Americans value their freedom, their way of life, the desire to be left alone, to live in peace with their families and neighbors.
Sgt. Alvin York, a poor Tennessee farmer and pacifist, was drafted in World War I. Desmond Doss from Lynchburg, Virginia, volunteered to serve in World War II provided he could be a non-combatant, a medic. York and Doss are among those civilians who went to war to protect their way of life. Both earned the Medal of Honor.
The U.S. had a draft between 1940-1975. In my high school, which was typical of high schools all across the country, if you didn’t go to college you either joined one of the military branches of service or were drafted. It was a way of life for those who lived during that period of time. Many recruits who grew up in rural areas met their first Jew in training. Others, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, were assigned to the same barracks as everyone else. New Yorkers and southerners were put together without a thought. While discovering their different experiences growing up, those differences, and all the others, became uniters in assembling perhaps the greatest military in history.
We, as a nation, may have lost something with the elimination of the draft. I will leave that to the politicians and those of the younger generations to debate. I think of the great social leveler military service was. In Arlington, in all national cemeteries, at the national shrine where the USS ARIZONA entombs those killed at Pearl Harbor, Americans of every race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, and region lie side by side. They served a greater cause than their individuality.
On May 12, 1962, General Douglas MacArthur delivered his Duty, Honor, Country speech to the cadets at West Point. It is unmatched in eloquence and simplicity. In it, talking about the soldier, he stated, “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.”
Our country is much divided today. I hope those divisions can be set aside on this one day of the year that we honor those who gave their last full measure so that we, as Americans, can enjoy those freedoms that allow us to be different, to have different views, and still enjoy the traditional Memorial Day barbeque with each other. We should all remember the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson on this day, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”