In Memorium

“Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Otto Von Bismark

Each year, Memorial Day gives us the formal opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the men and women who have died in military service to our nation. The holiday was originally called Decoration Day. Though Waterloo, N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by Lyndon Johnson in 1966, it is likely that the holiday had many separate beginnings, with over two dozen cities claiming to be the birthplace of this day of remembrance. The first observance of Memorial Day was May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. However, the South refused to acknowledge the holiday and honored its war dead separately until after World War I–when the significance of the holiday broadened to honor all Americans who had died fighting in any war, not just the Civil War. In 1915, a poet, Moina Michael conceived the idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day as a tangible expression of honor for servicemen who had died serving the country. This tradition ultimately spred to other countries as well, and the U.S. Postal Service honored Ms Michael in 1948 for her role in founding the National Poppy Movement with the issue of her likeness on a 3 cent red postage stamp. One of her poems conveys her reasons for choosing the poppy as the commemorative flower:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
Since the late 1950s,on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the Third U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the 260,000 plus gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. Additionally, since 1998, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of the 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on the Saturday before the observed holiday.

A sense of belonging, and tradition enriches all our lives. Most of us have an ancestor, a relative, a friend, a coworker who fought in one of the wars of this country. . .since the Revolutionary War in our fight for independence as a nation. And, in their deaths, these individuals have made us the beneficiaries of their ultimate sacrifice.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me.” Moreover, he made the following poignant comments about the origins of violence:

“Seven blunders of the world that lead to violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle.”
I think if you ponder Gandhi’s statement, you will see the rationale for every war we have fought to the present time somewhere in the text. We are a nation built upon the principles of liberty and justice for all. In efforts to preserve these principles both for our own nation, and to aid nations less fortunate than ours, citizens of our country have died in the process. And, as John Quincy Adams, our sixth President of the United States remarked, “The influence of each human being on others in this life is a kind of immortality.”

I’ll close this week’s Insight with a powerful poem composed as the author experiences the Vietnam Memorial. For all of you who have stood before this winding granite wall of names, you’ll identify with the images he evokes. Over 58,000 Americans died in this controversial war, and I think this poem speaks poignantly of them, and ultimately salutes all our war-dead.

Facing It
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
May 2001