(Published May 30, 2007 Chicago Tribune)
Memorial Day is a lovely day in America, a day of reunion in small towns, where people drive up to the cemetery on Monday morning and file in, old-timers carrying lawn chairs, and even if you've missed a few years, people will come over and shake your hand and thank you for coming. You don't have to dress up or support the war in Iraq. You just come, and afterward there are hot dogs and potato salad at the Legion Club.
It's the last patriotic holiday that still means something, and it persists year after year despite the wooden rituals and leaden speeches. In Central Park on Monday, an admiral with a chestful of ribbons gripped the lectern and read his lines, and the line of his that got quoted was, "Their sacrifice has enabled us to enjoy the things that we, I think in many cases, take for granted," which does not ring, does it? No.
"Their sacrifice has enabled us to enjoy the things that many of us take for granted" would have been better, but still it's nothing people will take home with them and ponder. How about, "Their noble sacrifice has enabled us to see the ignobility of the leadership that sent them to their deaths"? How about, "We have sacrificed enough of our young men and women and it is time to bring them home to enjoy the things that the rest of us take for granted"?
The Current Occupant drove over the bridge to Arlington and spoke at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a site of powerful reverence, and his speechwriter, in a hurry to finish and enjoy his weekend, gave him, "From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants and terrorists are frustrated and foiled -- where our nation is more secure from attack, and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it," a line cobbled together from scrap lumber. Shades of "the last full measure of devotion" and "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain" but made from different cloth. The reputation of the Gettysburg Address remains secure.
Dishonesty makes for poor rhetoric and that's what has gutted this beautiful holiday. The ideas it celebrates- that our young men and women did their duty and died in defense of their country- are simply not true. Vietnam was lost and it didn't matter to the security of the United States. Saigon fell and life in the States went on without a blink. And since the end of selective service, these honored dead are somebody else's sons and daughters, not ours- one good reason why there is so little protest of this war: If the Army were conscripting our children to go to Baghdad, the Occupant's approval rating would be in the low teens.
Memorial Day survives on the faint memories of World War II, the Good War. Those old Legion and VFW guys are the ones who keep it going. Some come in fatigues, some ride in golf carts past the rows of tombstones and the urns with fresh gardenias planted in them, and the Boy Scouts line up, and the auxiliary ladies in blue hand out little American flags. There is a distant HEE-YUP and the crowd shushes and the honor guard marches in, left, right, left, right, left, right, and Old Glory is raised on the flagpole, and we all recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The names of the dead are read and wreaths of poppies are placed and maybe somebody recites "In Flanders Fields":
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Everyone is a little stiff and self-consciously reverent. And then comes the speech. That's the problem. It is time for the truth to be told and we cannot bring ourselves to tell it. Good men and women were sacrificed to the vanity of politicians and generals. It is a miserable business to tell lies over the graves of good soldiers, but we do, and then we all sing "America the Beautiful," including the verse about heroes proved in liberating strife, and the honor guard fires its rifle salute and somebody presses Play on a boombox and we hear taps and the guard turns about-face and marches off and we walk away, thoughtfully, and there is much to think about.
(Garrison Keillor is an author and host of "A Prairie Home Companion.")