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A Memorial Day Post

26 May, 2008

When I was in Middle School and High School, our bands marched each year in the Memorial Day parade in Sharpsburg and Boonsboro.  The Sharpsburg parade was the big one. 

We met at the Sharpsburg Elementary School, lined up, and marched in full uniform (blue wool trousers with red and white stripes down the side, a red wool military-style jacket with a band collar, three rows of buttons, lots of braid, and epaulets on the shoulders, and a white ‘bearskin’ hat a foot tall) in the Maryland late-spring heat down the gentle slope into the center of town.  We played almost continuously from the school to the town square, and then started the slog up Cemetery Hill.  I think our director was out to prove something, because our high school band was the only one which played (complete with a double roll off (as soon as King’s Robinson’s Grand Entry ended, the drums immediately went into another roll off and we played the march again)) while marching up the hill.

The last three years I was in high school (second Sophomore year through Senior year), because I lived near the town and played trumpet, I played taps before the parade during the ceremony at the square, and then again up at the cemetery after the parade.  The ceremonies were brief (not more than a half-hour) and I remembered them as quite tasteful.  They even had three different kinds of evangelical ministers up at the cemetary for the opening prayer, the invocation, and the concluding prayer (very ecumenical).

This cemetery was a spooky place, even in my late teens.  Not because it is a graveyard — I considered myself a deist by that time, and idea of lots of dead people didn’t bother me, especially if they were buried.  The graveyard disturbed me because it houses the remains of 4,776 men who died on one day (or died due to wounds recieved that day):  September 17, 1862.  Antietam National Cemetery contains the Union dead from the single bloodiest day in American history.  I still feel honored that I blew taps on three consecutive Memorial Days.  The ceremonies remembered not just that one day, not just that one battle, but all of America’s fallen soldiers.

While in college in New Hampshire, while in the Army, while a government employee, I had, for the last 23 years, managed to avoid Memorial Day celebrations and services.  I don’t think I was consciously avoiding them, I had other things (work and family) to occupy me.  Memorial Day weekend was just a pay period I got holiday pay.

The next time that I remembered my Memorial Day performances was in 2001.  I was called down to New York City to supply security for the team which provided the support for the search and rescue crews (yes, the command structure was a little weird on that one).  I found myself (as part of my job) down at the World Trade Center site on at least seven occasions.  I thought back to my participation in the ceremonies at Antietam and tried to make sense out of what had happened.  I couldn’t.  Not at that time.  It took four years before I could even discuss what I saw.

With kids in band, though, non-participation in Memorial Day events gone by the wayside. I missed last years Memorial Day parade up in the township because I was at a wildland fire in Georgia (and, from the reports of (((Wife))) and (Daughter), I think it was cooler in Georgia).  This year, though, (((Wife))) and I provided transportation for drums and water for the band in the annual parade up in the township.

Parts of the ceremony brought tears to my eyes.  The reading of the names of the soldiers from that small town, the names of more than 50 men, who had died in World War I, World War II and Korea, with the ringing of a silver bell for each name, was touching and almost brought tears to my eyes.  The obligatory singing of the National Anthem (by two girls from the town), God Bless America (led by a veteran in his 90s), pre-schoolers leading the Pledge of Allegience (I left out ‘Under God’), and the high school band playing a medley of armed forces songs was actually kind of fun.

Two of the speeches struck a discordant note in my mind, though.  The commander of our local National Guard unit, a Lietenant Colonel (who bore a striking resemblence to the British officer, Colonel Blimp) talked about honour and commitment.  The honour of our armed services, their honour in upholding the Constitution and fighting for human rights, and their honour bringing freedom to the oppressed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I’m not sure if the armed forces (as a whole (the individual trooper may serve with honour, and I do not denigrate the honour and commitment of 99.9% of our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen)) can still claim honour.  Torture, human rights abuses, the deaths of between 200,000 and 800,000 Iraqi civilians, and the participation in a war of questionable international legality which was started through lies and deception, tarnish the honour of these institutions.  These policies are were concieved and handed down by the armed service’s civilian leadership (as it should be under our Constitution), but this does not excuse our officers and enlisted men and women from culpability.  In Basic Training, in 1990, I was taught that it was my duty to disobey an illegal order.  Did any soldier at Abu Ghraib prison refuse to cross that line?

The second speech which raised my eyebrows was by an Orthodox priest.  His sermon was (mercifully) short, but in it he said that every member of the armed forces who dies to protect his or her country is in the merciful arms of the Almighty in heaven.  The thoughts running through my head drowned out the rest of his sermon/prayer:  Christianity is an exclusive religion.  It claims to have the only key to heaven.  If you do not believe the right thing about the right things, you go to hell.  And almost every Christian sect professes that theirs is the only right way to believe the right things.  Which means that his comment about fallen soldiers is, to be polite, bullshit.  By the teachings of his Orthodox Church, only service members in good standing of the Orthodox faith, who are current in all debts to the church, go to heaven.  The rest are heretics and go to hell.

Looking back from a quarter-century distance, I realize that those three evangelical preachers at the national cemetery in Sharpsburg were probably spewing the same claptrap.  The weird thing is, I still feel honoured to have blown taps on hallowed ground, honouring the men and women who have fallen in battle.  Despite the religious overtones (and I would prefer that Memorial Day be a secular holiday), I would do it again.

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3 comments

  1. Of course you would do it again. The ground isn’t hallowed because it was blessed by a deity but because of the memory of those who sacrificed their lives in the noble service of others. If I were a soldier, though, I’d much prefer Valhalla or Elysian Fields to Heaven.


  2. I’m not to wild about Valhalla. Getting chopped to pieces every day, being put back together in the afternoon, feasting all night? That meade better have one hell of a kick!


  3. Hi, You Have a Nice Blog I really like it.



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