May 26, 2008
As was the case last year, Memorial Day ceremonies in Staunton's Gypsy Hill Park were blessed with beautiful, sunny weather, a cheery contrast to the somber occasion. The event was sponsored by the American Legion Post #13 and V.F.W. Post #2216. As usual, the Stonewall Brigade Band Brass Ensemble provided the music, along with bagpipe player Capt. Lee Tate, and solo vocalist Earnest Holly, who sang Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." (I'm Proud to Be an American) and a couple other songs. Ray Houser served as Master of Ceremonies, and Rev. Charles Davis gave the keynote address. He tried to get the audience to think about what those who died for their country would have accomplished had they lived, and what they would have wanted. As he suggested, all patriotic people ought to devote themselves to carrying out -- in one way or another, as best they can -- the work begun by those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.
The only downside to the commemoration today was the relative lack of young people in attendance. Perhaps it is a reflection of the general disinterest in history and cultural heritage shown by many in the younger generation, disparaging the study of history. But we shouldn't pin the blame on youth, because their habits and priorities are to a large extent a reflection of the way they were brought up by their parents. Across the board, many people of all ages find it too painful or discomforting to remember the past. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As but one example, the reaction of many people to the recent surge in energy prices suggests that they have learned nothing at all from the blunders in energy policy of the 1970s. Unless our society pays more attention to its own past -- both the heroic deeds and the mistakes -- we will keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Even worse, we will make it extremely difficult to restore the sense of national unity that is a prerequisite to our continued survival as a nation.
Let Memorial Day be a day not just of ritualizing old memories, but also a day of active remembrance, reflection, and conscious action.
In Sunday's Washington Post, columnist George Will paid tribute to Frank Buckles, age 107, the last known American veteran who served in France during World War I. Will made an interesting observation that would never have occurred to most students today: "The First World War is still taking American lives because it destroyed the Austro-Hungarian, Romanoff and Ottoman empires. A shard of the latter is called Iraq."
U.S. soldiers who served "over there" in France were called "doughboys," but that slang term originated several decades before, during the 19th Century. See www.worldwar1.com.