Posted May 27, 2021
By Byron King
Memorial Day, Covid + 1 Year
This year, Memorial Day falls on Monday, May 31. A long weekend looms if your work and lifestyle allow.
Here at the Whiskey bar, we have some thoughts on the holiday; see below. And please be sure to read Whiskey this coming Saturday too, when colleague Jim Amrhein has a special note.
Among other things, it’s nice to see that the flags are back. That is “37,342 American flags will line portions of Boston Common near the Soldiers and Sailors monument,” according to the Boston Globe.1
Boston’s sea of red, white and blue. Courtesy Boston Globe.
The colorful, long-running annual event is Boston’s tribute to Massachusetts service members who died in the line of duty since the Revolutionary War.
This year’s flag ceremony marks a return to a semblance of pre-Covid normal. And as goes Boston, so goes the nation — at least we hope so.
We’re a far throw from last year when a mere 1,000 flags found their way into the hallowed soil of one of Boston’s most iconic, historic public spaces. Back then, in 2020 and in a measure of bizarre symbolism, flags were all spaced six feet apart due to the pandemic.
But in many respects, widely spaced flags are the least of our worries. This past year was a time of national tumult and it’s far from over.
Let’s look back and dig in…
A year ago, the country was locked down due to coronavirus. Or rather, as I noted at the time, “due to government reaction to coronavirus.”
The U.S. economy crashed, along with economies across the globe. Supply chains crashed too, wreaking havoc on the idea of globalization.
Then we had the long, hot, mostly lawless summer. Which led into the fall’s vicious election campaigns. Then the bitter aftermath of November and December. And the infamous events of Jan. 6. Now there’s President Biden. (How’s that for summarizing things?)
Getting back to Memorial Day though, and virus or no, at least last year we preserved the tradition of recalling the fallen from both recent times and far into the past.
At root, the idea is to pay respects to those who fell on a distant field. Or perhaps others who served honorably and then came home to live life until their ration of time ran out. There’s never a wrong moment to remember these kinds of things, of course.
And it’s never out of place to think well of those who served the country; although Memorial Day is set aside for just that purpose, to give every old, departed Soldier and Sailor their day.
And note: the old Soldiers and Sailors who are still around have Veterans’ Day in November.
On a personal level, perhaps you served, or a spouse or child. You remember the old friends, the colleagues and comrades. Or your father or mother served. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Grandparents. Great grandparents. How far back does your family go?
Even if you or your family are recent arrivals in the U.S., and no one spent even a single day in the national ranks, you’re still allowed to remember. There’s no law against it, not yet anyhow.
Not to be presumptuous, but people should remember. After all, if you’re here, you benefit from the very existence of the country. We all do. Because we all drink from wells dug by others.
Now, a bit of history. Memorial Day has roots in the Civil War and in the military conduct of the war itself.
That is, early in that conflict people on each side believed the fighting would soon be over. Northerners thought they’d rout the rebels. Southerners were convinced that they’d lick the Yankees. But no plan survives first contact with the opponent.
Not long into the fight, casualties mounted. In essence, weapons had outpaced tactics while medical treatment was primitive at best. Out in the fields, skirmishes and engagements led to utter massacres.
Graveyards filled fast: by the thousands, tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands. More and more, across the land families looked past kitchen tables at empty chairs.
Those war years were a time beyond pain, truly an era of sorrow. Drew Faust, historian and former President of Harvard University, wrote an insightful book about those sad times, entitled “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” (2008).
As the war dragged out, individual desires to express personal feelings transformed into a collective and cultural phenomenon. Parents, wives and children began to decorate graves of fallen sons, husbands and fathers. It was nothing too fancy, for the most part. These were the 1860s after all, so just a few flowers in remembrance.
Then again, speaking of remembrances, it’s worth pointing out that in November 1863 President Abraham Lincoln gave one of his defining speeches — the Gettysburg Address — at the commissioning of a new cemetery.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President2
“We are met on a great battlefield,” said Lincoln. “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
From grass roots and kitchen tables to the Gettysburg site, the cultural momentum of wartime remembrance was carved into the national consciousness like those names and dates on marble tombstones. And the whole idea continued after hostilities ended.
In 1868 a private veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) named May 30 as “Decoration Day.” The head of the GAR, Major General John Logan, picked that date because he thought that, by then, it would be possible to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.”3
“Guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” said Logan. “Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
One early GAR event took place at the former estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. in Arlington, Va. Lee’s land had been seized by the federal government during the war and used to bury Union soldiers.
About 5,000 people showed up at that first Arlington ceremony. Spontaneously, many brought small American flags that they planted in the ground above each grave. It birthed a custom.
Today, Memorial Day is federal law. The old flag-planting custom is now beyond mere noble tradition. At Arlington, flags are part of an impressive, heraldic ceremony.
It’s all maintained by the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, the famous Old Guard. The order is called “Flags In!” And annually, soldiers carefully place hundreds of thousands of flags next to headstones.
“Flags In!” at Arlington. Courtesy Military Times.4
Last year, due to Covid, over Memorial Day weekend many U.S. veterans’ cemeteries were closed or under tight restrictions over who could visit.
This year, things are more open. Indeed, there’s a full schedule at Arlington; check the website.
Still, despite the flags much has changed in a year, since 2020 let alone two years back in distant 2019. That was then; and this is now. Truly, we live in a different nation.
There were ominous trends in the U.S. of old, of course, as recently as a couple or three years back. Taxes, spending, regulation. Financialization, deindustrialization, globalization. And the general downward spiral of education and culture.
It was not so good even then. But now, it’s as if the place is on fire and burning down.
We’re firmly in the firm grip of massive government; big government if not Big Brother government. Depending on where you live, even your state government is not necessarily your friend.
There’s big government spending, to be sure. The past year has been a time of hemorrhagic outlays measured in trillions of dollars, astronomical numbers to be sure.
In fact, the numbers in play, the deficits and national debts are far in excess of any possible amount the Treasury can ever raise via taxation. Even massive, coast to coast confiscation of private property — soaking the rich to the bone — would not begin to raise the kind of money that American politicians require to cover those blank checks they write.
In this environment, well… so much for the future of the dollar. Right now, the idea is to protect wealth, which some do with old fashioned hard assets like real estate or gold and silver, and others attempt with cryptos or by chasing momentum in the ballooning stock market.
Then there’s Big Tech and Mainstream Media, which are cat’s paws of that big-spending Big Government. These tools of control print and reprint the daily press releases that mirror government policies. They transmit rudder orders to set the course for mass-level groupthink, all to the end of enforcing general conformity.
And when people don’t toe the line, there’s always censorship and de-platforming. Ask anyone whose Twitter account was locked out, or whose YouTube library was erased to the last electron.
And abroad there’s the inertia of militarism and saber rattling, except that the easy, pushover wars are now a thing of the past. The credibility of pervasive American power is fading, and that’s saying it nicely.
By waging near-continuous wars for almost three decades, since the Cold War closed out, the U.S. has taught entire generations of opponents how best to respond and fight back.
For example, Afghans know how to fight Americans in the Mountains. And Iranians know how to fight Americans in the Persian Gulf.
China, of course, is building a military to kick the U.S. out of the Western Pacific. It’s going to happen so get used to it.
And Russia (or “Russia-Russia-Russia” as some call it) has gained military superiority in numerous arenas. Frankly, many Russian systems are generations ahead of anything rolling out of U.S. factories. Even worse, these martial points are near incomprehensible to most U.S. policymakers, let alone the journalism majors who populate the military media channels.
I could go on, but you get the idea…
Whatever the country used to be, it’s not the same anymore. Perhaps the nation really has reached the point about which Gen. Logan warned; that in the future “we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
At the level of culture, consider how facemasks became the ubiquitous fashion statement of 2020-21 across the length and breadth of the country.
Now, as some remove their masks, others refuse to do so. In many respects, facemasks have become the equivalent of blue and gray uniforms in a new version of that old Civil War.
Or to use contemporary military terms, we’re in a “hybrid” civil war. We’re not shooting each other… not yet. But across the landscape rages a deep-seated cultural and political fight over the basics of personal freedom versus government control.
It’s all so sad. A requiem for a once-great nation.
This kind of cultural breakdown is not why we have national cemeteries. Not why we remember the dead and place flags next to headstones. It’s not why a proper military funeral includes a three-shot rifle volley… one for duty, one for honor and one for country.
It gets back to those flags I discussed at the beginning of this article. Deep down, it seems like much of the nation is trying to find some sense of reconnection with the past. It’s one of the few hopes as we move into this Memorial Day of Covid plus 1 year.
And as we enjoy a couple of days to think things through, Memorial Day should remind us all how much at risk are the very foundations of liberty.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Rich Retirement Letter
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4 Arlington Cemetery Loosens Pandemic Restrictions Ahead of Memorial Day, Military Times