When I was in high school, I read “General Logan’s Orders” at a Memorial Day fete before a modest crowd on a village green in Maine next to a statue commemorating Civil War veterans. A Carnegie Library, a gift from the Scottish robber baron, faced the green, along with a venerable Baptist Church whose early minister had long, long before penned “America,” which we remember better as “My County, ’Tis Of Thee.” There was a parade and people marched. A classmate read “The Gettysburg Address.” We were still planning on winning the war in Vietnam that year.
“General Logan’s Orders” were the instructions of Gen. John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, who more or less founded Memorial Day in 1868 to honor those who died in the Civil War. Probably few remember General Logan, but his orders made the focus of the day very clear. The holiday was “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
Back then, Boy Scouts, VFW members and Gold Star Mothers, those who had lost sons in the service of our country, festooned the nation’s burial grounds with little flags on Memorial Day. Many still called it Decoration Day, in homage to General Logan’s orders. It makes me feel like Methuselah writing that, but in the 1950s and 1960s it was true.
The Civil War did not seem so far off then. The last veteran died when I was in grade school. It’s still a young country when you realize that it was possible to be alive at the same time as someone who fought at Bull Run. Remember the Civil War? Remember “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”?
A few years ago I was in Washington, when I realized I was near the Vietnam War Memorial. I walked across the lawn, went to the directory and looked up the names of people I went to high school with who had died in Vietnam. I found Rodney Delisle’s name. I knew his sister in high school. She was in my homeroom. He was one year ahead of me in school and he died July 6, 1969, at Quang Tri. He was 19. I knew a lot of people who went to Vietnam and some came home dead. “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.” That was Country Joe and the Fish and “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” That was not “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” Different wars, different songs, I suppose. According to the National Archives, 58,193 Americans died in Vietnam and more than 85 percent of them were men between the ages of 17 and 27.
One of my early memories of those easy years after World War II was that there were a lot of people around who had fought in the war, real combat veterans. But no one talked much about the war or what they’d done in it. There were guys in my town who’d gone ashore at Bougainville and Tarawa and Guadalcanal, but you’d never know it.
The biggest saber rattler in my town—Mr. American Legion— was never in combat. He spent “The Big One,” as they called it down at the bar at the post home, counting blankets at Fort Drum. He drove around town in a big Buick with flags on it and vanity plates. He wore his American Legion cap a lot. His photograph appeared frequently in the local newspaper. He was ever vigilant for signs of communism. He often spoke at public events on the dangers of Moscow. He presented deserving youths with savings bonds. Even as small children we knew he was a ridiculous buffoon.
Now everyone who talks most loudly about the war never actually saw a war. Neither George W. Bush nor Dick Cheney nor Donald Rumsfeld ever “smelled Yankee powder,” as the Rebels used to say. (I’m not counting peace-time service or home guard nonsense.) Neither did William Jefferson Clinton or Barack Obama. And few in Congress serve, nor do their sons and daughters. Who among the windbags braying on TV ever saw combat? Glenn Beck? Rush Limbaugh? Bill O’Reilly? Time was that a decent man would have been ashamed to speak of war if he had not seen battle. What loss have they known? Who among them has had their boy come home in a box?
Memorial Day is supposed to be for remembering. But it is not so much observed now. Just another three-day weekend to drive downy o’shun or shop the big sales. I wonder what old General Logan would make of the holiday, and of the armchair warriors and talk show saber rattlers who are so quick to doom the sons and daughters of the working class to die.