May 27, 2015 13 Comments
Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think the Monday Holiday Law was enacted to make us forget the cause of the holiday. Proof, I suspect, if you needed it, that I have my full share of the traditional American distrust of the government and all its doings. It may be misplaced but, I’ve always found it a good guide.
But sometimes it backfires because it gives us more time to reflect, and this Memorial Day is one of those for me. As I mentioned last Saturday when General Logan issued the orders to the Grand Army of the Republic that instituted Decoration Day, he specified that it should be done on 30 May, and frankly moving it to 25 May is nearly too far. But there is nothing really wrong with America’s memory, and we know both what and why we celebrate it.
Bruce Catton in describing a route march of the Federal army observed that march discipline was terrible with stragglers all over the place, where men stopped for a drink and a rest and all. He also noted that when the battle lines were drawn all those stragglers were right there, and no armies ever had better battle discipline.
Not because the officers demanded it, a few thought discipline should be like the regulars, but the volunteers, with their mostly elected officers weren’t having it. He made the comment that Billy and Johnny were very much like GI Joe that he knew in the forties as well. American armies always have a sort of loose-jointed, lanky discipline. Pretty much everything important gets done, and on time, but there’s not much spit and polish in evidence.
And that is about as American as it gets, ad hoc, informal, git ‘er done. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about this Memorial; Day: Rolling Thunder. What could be more American than a bunch of veterans, sick of being ignored because of the war they fought in, getting together to commemorate their comrades, and all the others, from Washington on down to those still ‘downrange’.
Stanton S. Coerr wrote movingly about it in The Federalist.
Yesterday, nearly a million sunburned Americans converged on Washington DC’s National Mall for the Rolling Thunder Run, a combination memorial event and motorcycle rally held since 1988. Hundreds of thousands were mounted, roaring one at a time along the nation’s front yard; more than half a million watched from sidewalks, ice cream in hand, yelling and cheering from the sidelines. Wives rode pillion, and flags snapped and streamed behind the bikes: the Stars and Stripes; POW/MIA flags; Navy unit crests; Marine Corps colors; Ranger flags; the yellow and black of the Airborne.
Devoted to good Detroit steel and unmuffled V-twin combustion from Harley Davidsons built in the heartland America of small-town Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Missouri, these veterans celebrate every year, in booming engines and determined presence, the American fighting man. […]
They started gathering early Sunday morning in the parking lot of the Pentagon, that building which sent them to war and their friends to early graves. Looking up from the rally point, these riders could see the Arlington gardens of white stone, thousands of acres of perfect, serried ranks where their brothers lie. Standing sentinel above those rows of crosses and Stars of David, looking out at Washington, is the house which came through the Washington family to Robert E. Lee, and which the Union took from him, its land appropriated for the graves of the Union fallen in the War Between the States.Low and right of that house, riders could just see above the trees the American flag flying above the Iwo Jima Memorial, Joe Rosenthal’s photo come to life, commemorating the fallen of the Marine Corps’ wars. Carved into black stone on the base of that monument are the dates and wars in which Marines have fought….but only wars which are complete. Iraq and Afghanistan are absent. […]
The Harleys flowed, too. They passed monuments to America’s best moments and her worst: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the National Museum of African American History under construction, the White House, the Capitol, the National Museum of the American Indian. Black leather, black bandannas, black helmets, black motorcycles, black POW/MIA flags snapping in their breeze, they motored past the quiet white buildings of the United States: government agencies, art galleries. They passed within feet of the National Archives, engine noise thrumming in the rooms that hold the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta. They passed the block-long glass of the Air and Space Museum, the busiest museum in the world, a monument to the strength and can-do know-how of Americans who conquered the skies, won our wars and put men on the moon.
All of this is America. The roads of Rolling Thunder– Independence and Constitution – are bookends to the ideals for which these men joined and fought, and for which their friends died. […]
Returning to Virginia, the bikers did what Americans do. They shut down the bikes and men, women, and engines cooled. They gathered. Some went to visit their brothers in Bobby Lee’s backyard, leaving totems atop the cool white stone: rocks and unit patches and jump wings and bottles of Jack, cards and boots and bullet casings. They turned for the cameras and left space for their brother between their knees. They put their arms on one another’s shoulders and looked at the frozen lives, carved now into the nation’s stone. And they wept.
Reads it all at: In Washington, Motorcycle-Mounted Veterans Remember Their Own
And that too strikes as so very American, veterans parading in good order and discipline without any real semblance of leadership, while the American people cheer. Jess has told us several times that in Britain the military is nearly monastic, separated from the people most of the time. Not here, the American military is the darling of the people, well, the no nonsense folks from the Heartland anyway, it’s quite rare for a soldier out here to buy his own beer. And this in a country that at it’s founding abolished the Army because of its threat to domestic tranquility.
Orwell was right you know, we sleep safe in our beds because of rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.
I spoke above of how the Civil War soldiers always showed up for battle, and here is why, then, and now, they are a band of brothers, who fight for each other, the question really is always, “Who were you with?”
What’s it all mean? Perhaps as usual Kipling put it best.
We cleansed our beards of the mutton-grease, We lay on the mats and were filled with peace, And the talk slid north, and the talk slid south, With the sliding puffs from the hookah-mouth. Four things greater than all things are, -- Women and Horses and Power and War. We spake of them all, but the last the most, For I sought a word of a Russian post, Of a shifty promise, an unsheathed sword And a grey-coat guard on the Helmund ford. […] "Heart of my heart, is it meet or wise To warn a King of his enemies? We know what Heaven or Hell may bring, But no man knoweth the mind of the King. Of the grey-coat coming who can say? When the night is gathering all is grey. Two things greater than all things are, The first is Love, and the second War. And since we know not how War may prove, Heart of my heart, let us talk of Love!"
Although perhaps today we should substitute Harley’s for horses, since they perform much the same function, and that throbbing sound of power is also America at its best