There is a comforting familiarity to Evanston’s Memorial Day ritual – the presentation of the colors, the pledge of allegiance, the patriotic songs, the 21-gun salute, the laying of wreaths, and the haunting notes of “Taps.”
On Memorial Day, we have to confront the steep cost of freedom and the incomparable luxury of living in this country. Though the speeches vary, the veterans speak in one voice and in a language we all understand: “This is a country whose values are worth defending.”
In honoring those who fought for our country in the armed services, it is tempting for some to glide over the controversy and the carnage, thank the veterans, and roll the past into a cocoon of “patriotism.” In others, even if they themselves did not see combat, some wounds have not scarred over. Two wars that tore the fabric of this country – and in some way still tear – are the Civil War and the Vietnam War.
Memorial Day, recognized only in 1971 as a national holiday, began as Decoration Day after the Civil War, when communities, particularly in the southern states, brought flowers to the graves of their dead soldiers.
In his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of the ravages of the war and the necessity of reconciliation to heal the country: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
On April 4, 1977, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with three other religious leaders, spoke out against the war in Vietnam. He saw the immorality of the war as a civil rights issue, a violence issue and a poverty issue: “Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. … I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such…. I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times on May 30, film directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick wrote about the Vietnam War: “There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness, and, ultimately, patriotism.” Their documentary on the Vietnam War will be out soon.
Again, our country is being torn and tested. Derogatory and divisive language, once used in private if at all, is now common. Identity politics and fake and curated news threaten objective thinking, and many on either side of an issue believe they are not only right but righteous. It is again time for civil discourse and openness to others’ thoughts. The language of reconciliation need not be the language of acquiescence. Our own Frances Willard, facing opposition to women’s suffrage and temperance, said, “The world is wide, and I will not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum.”