Monday, May 31, 2004

Remembering past sacrifices
Memorial Day means a lot of different things to different Americans — a celebration of our nation, remembrance of veterans, a time to spend with family, et cetera. On Memorial Day, I do those things too. But I am also cognizant of the holiday's official purpose — to remember America's war dead. We consecrate this day, which now falls on the last Monday in May, to remember our fellow Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The VA provides a nice history of the holiday; the History Channel has a good description as well. Here's a short excerpt:
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time set aside to honor the nation's Civil War dead by decorating their graves. It was first widely observed on May 30,1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former sailors and soldiers.

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By the late 1800s, many communities across the country had begun to celebrate Memorial Day and, after World War I, observances also began to honor those who had died in all of America's wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May. (Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor all veterans, living and dead, is celebrated each year on November 11.)

Today, Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Also, it is customary for the president or vice-president to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. About 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I fortunate to be in the Washington DC area for a wedding. So I decided to visit the new World War II Memorial on Friday, before the official dedication on Saturday by President Bush. Let me say first that it is a breathtaking sight. I know this memorial has provoked criticism from the artistic community, and perhaps it deserves some. But as I walked into the memorial's plaza from 17th St., looking through it towards the Lincoln Memorial, I just found myself awestruck.

* Photo credit: Rick Latoff - American Battle Monuments Commission

The view in this photograph hardly does the site justice — imagine this plaza filled with hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of people. The visitors included infants, children, young adults and old adults. But the most special visitors were clearly these: the men and women who had lived through World War II and the 20th Century to see this memorial constructed to their accomplishments. Some came in suits; some came in sweats. Many wore American Legion caps, or their medals. A few even wore their uniforms, and it was quite a sight to see octogenarians moving around in Marine Corps dress blues or Army greens. These Americans are our living history, and it was very special to spend the day in their presence.

* Photo credit: Don Ripper - American Battle Monuments Commission

I know that Memorial Day is supposed to be about the Americans who have given their lives for this country, and the memorial does remember them with a wall of gold stars — 4,000 stars to represent 400,000 Americans killed in action. However, what meant the most to me this weekend was the ability to watch these older Americans enjoy the memorial. I have often thought of America itself as a memorial to the WWII generation's accomplishments. We owe our way of life and place in the world to their deeds, and to the decisions made during that war by Presidents Roosevelt Truman. In a sense, this great victory needed no memorial, because the WWII generation's endeavors were memorialized in so many things around us. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but think that it was about time we crystallized their accomplishments with something a monument this, and created one place where Americans who didn't live through WWII could come to remember these times.

The WWII Memorial may not be the most aesthetically pleasing monument on the mall; I'll grant the critics that. But it had enormous meaning to those WWII vets I encountered this weekend in Washington. The site also had a profound impact on me, both as a veteran and as the grandson of a WWII veteran. After walking away from the memorial, I couldn't stop talking about it for the rest of the weekend. I also walked away with a great deal of curiosity, about both the monument and the WWII vets who were there. I've read a bit about WWII already, but I felt the need to learn even more, especially about the stories and battles not explicitly mentioned at the memorial. Future generations won't get to see the WWII vets walking around, and they won't get to ask them about their stories. But hopefully, the memorial will spur future generations of Americans to learn about this war — its causes, its costs, its victories and defeats, its legacies and its people. Even if it doesn't win any art prizes, the memorial will be a success to me if it fosters the learning of future generations in this way.

Post Script: Stephen Barr had a very interesting story in Sunday's Washington Post about the GI Bill, which it called "an enduring monument" to the war. I hadn't thought about it until reading this story today, but I think that's really an interesting point.
Since it was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, about $77 billion in benefits authorized under the bill have flowed to 7.8 million veterans of World War II and 2.4 million of the Korean War, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. An additional 1.4 million post-Korean veterans and 6 million Vietnam-era veterans have used the GI Bill for education and training.

That snapshot, however, does not begin to explain how one law has touched generations of Americans. "It built a modern middle class. It propelled a generation of leaders," said Anthony J. Principi, the secretary of veterans affairs.
Secretary Principi is right on the money, but he also understates the point. The GI Bill is what enabled the veterans of WWII to flood America's colleges and universities -- previously bastions of privilege -- and subsequently become the scientists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, salesmen, managers and leaders of the 20th Century. The GI Bill touched off the greatest educational boom in this country, which according to many studies, is as much responsible for our economic boom during this period as anything. And today, the GI Bill remains the most important benefit for new soldiers choosing to enlist; it has given millions of Americans the chance to earn a post-secondary education that would not have otherwise had it. In a sense, all of us who have served and received GI Bill benefits have walked in the footsteps of the WWII generation, whose initial sacrifices led to the creation of this benefit. And for that, I am personally very grateful.