- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

A lot of people take credit for thinking up Memorial Day, but almost nobody remembers what we were thinking about in the first place.

All it means to most Americans is a marker of the beginning of summer (which is actually still a month away). Beginning today, it’s OK to wear two-tone shoes, seersucker and straw hats.

The merchants at the beach are upset because it still doesn’t look like summer, or even early spring. One look out the window and it might as well be November. The merchants in Ocean City and Dewey Beach are happy when it rains, once everybody gets there. The rain drives visitors off the sand and into the shops, but a sunny Memorial Day weekend is necessary to get everybody’s credit cards on the scene.

For the rest of us, Memorial Day is only the first three-day loaf of the year. That’s what holidays are for, which is why we’ve dumbed them all down. Memorial Day was once set aside to mark the graves of the war dead with flowers, just as Veterans Day was once a marker for Armistice Day, to commemorate Nov. 11, 1918 — “the silencing of the guns at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” — as the end of the war to end war. (Do not laugh.) Labor Day barely any longer honors the working men (and women), and is intended now to drive the moms of America into the nearest Wal-Mart to buy shoes and shirts and paper and pencils to send the kids back to school. Washington and Lincoln no longer get a day of honor; their days have morphed into a commercial hybrid called Presidents Day, when we’re supposed to run out to buy a car. Martin Luther King Day still celebrates Martin Luther King, but not for long. His eloquent prescriptions for brotherhood are already scorned and sneered at by the current crop of “black leaders,” so it’s only a matter of time until the day meant to honor his memory and what he preached will be just another excuse for a three-day weekend.

Trashing our history and its icons has become the identifying phenomenon of our national culture, what there is left of it. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, once thought to be a memorial of unassailable dignity, has been reopened once to put in more unknown dead (and to take one out after his identity was belatedly discovered), diluting the power of its eloquent simplicity. Now it is to be tampered with again to repair a crack in the marble. We can expect a malcontent with too much time on his hands, inevitably egged on by the ACLU, to use the occasion to demand that we erase the epitaph: “Here lies in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Surely such an inscription establishes a national religion, at least in the stunted minds of those who don’t understand religious faith.

We no longer know how to leave well enough alone. Memorial Day — the original, when it was called Decoration Day — was first the idea of a group of women in Columbus, Miss., who decorated the graves of the young men killed two years earlier at Shiloh, the first great carnage of the War Between the States. Decoration days, or “cemetery workings,” are still observed in the small towns of the South and the Middle West, when volunteers gather to cut the grass and put flowers on the graves of their dead.

The idea appealed to the Yankees, too, and after the war ended Gen. John A. Logan, the first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (the forerunner of the American Legion) designated May 30, 1868, as a day to decorate the graves of those slain in “the late rebellion.” And so it remained, observed every May 30 until 1971, when Congress decided that the day should honor the bureaucrats of the federal government, and established it as another floating holiday, to be observed as the last Monday in May so it could be celebrated with hot dogs, bellywash and sunscreen. Actual memories of dead soldiers need not apply.

And certainly not Lee, Stuart, Jackson and the Americans in butternut gray who gave their lives defending their homes and families from invading armies of plunderers and arsonists. It’s part of the new multicultural inclusiveness: “You must honor my heritage and to the trash can with yours.” It’s only a matter of time until all memories of the Confederacy will be erased as mandated by law. Only the other day several jackleg judges of our District of Columbia courts, aggressively ignorant of the nation’s history, demanded that sheets be draped over several paintings at a hotel where the judges were partying at taxpayer expense, lest their delicate sensibilities be offended by the depiction of a Confederate battle flag above the smoke of battle. It was enough to make a soldier’s ghost throw up.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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