Memorial Day, 2011

Graves at Arlington

Another Memorial Day, and it’s been thunder storming here in Woodstock, NY most of the morning. I love it! It’s exactly the kind of weather that I prefer on Memorial Day. With rain, thunder and lightning about, perhaps Memorial Day parades will be cancelled. A Vietnam Veteran, I have never been impressed with martial music from marching bands, us old veterans sporting remnants of too-tight uniforms, or the profusion of American flags flapping about on Memorial Day. Equally distasteful are “celebrations,” during which pompous politicians too often spew forth rousing rhetoric about Duty, Honor, Country — most politicians have never been in the military to experience the horror of war first hand, but they sure love to speechify about how honorable a cause any war is, while prominently displaying their ubiquitous American Flag lapel pins. This strikes me as the height of hubris and hypocrisy. I also find it offensive for so-called “peace activists” to rant rage-filled anti-war screeds to Memorial Day crowds.

Originally known as Decoration Day in both Northern and Southern communities, this day of remembrance for war dead began shortly after the cessation of Civil War hostilities in 1865. It became a common practice to place flowers or flags on the graves of the some 650,000 combatants killed in the Union and Confederate Armies. After WW I Decoration Day was extended to honor military deaths from all wars fought by Americans, and after WW II it became common practice to refer to the the occasion as Memorial Day. In 1967, it became an official federal holiday on the last Monday of May, which also marks the start of the summer vacation season. Increasingly, it has been noteworthy as a day for “blow out” sales events by local merchants and trips to the beach for picnics or backyard barbecues.

For the past decade, it has also been an occasion to tout America’s military might. On Long Island the Jones Beach Air Show, has been a major event every Memorial Day since 2004. Prominent Long Island corporations sponsor this hugely popular air show. On Memorial Day several years ago, I attended the Air Show with a number of compatriots from the Long Island peace community to silently march together in the spirit of remembering the fallen from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, both combatants as well as civilian. We were a tiny, tiny minority among some 443,000 attendees at the raucous event, as I describe in this prose poem:

The Bone

The festive crowd underneath a sea of umbrellas filled the beach and lined up all along the wide boardwalk for the Jones Beach Air Show. Vendors amid an extravaganza of corporate displays hawked their genocidal wares. Displays decked out in flowing red, white and blue, portrayed gallant exploits of Army, Navy, Marines, National Guard, Coast Guard? and the mighty Air Force.

In giddy exaltation, roars of approval from the huge crowd cheered each display of martial skill: Golden Knights parachuting, Navy Seals scuba diving, Special Ops repelling from black-black Blackhawks. But the most solemn, neck-craning, mouth-open-slack, vacant-eyed adulation was reserved for a huge Air Force airplane that thunderously roared by    not once    nor twice    but thrice to the fevered commentary of the announcer, blaring from mega-decibel loudspeakers accompanied by a rousing, bass-pounding rendition of “Bad to the Bone”:

“Yessiree, Ladies and Gentlemen, the B1B Bomber, aka the Bone. The  backbone of America’s nuclear arsenal. Carries the largest payload of guided and unguided nuclear weaponry ever. More firepower than 200 WW II bombers. Look at that baby. Here it comes. Aren’t you proud to be an American on Memorial Day? There it goes. Doesn’t the sight of  that thrill you? Listen to that roar. That’s the sound of freedom.”

Marching with a solemn little band of 40 or so Peacemakers marking the true meaning of Memorial Day, carrying a string of Code Pink ribbons, one for each fallen American soldier, some 3452 ever mounting, thinking about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians casually genocided, I was disgusted, saddened by memories of my quagmire forty years ago in jungle.  For comic relief, to ward off a plunge into keening despair I visualize scores — nay, thousands of Raging Grannies, Code Pink ladies, Pax Christi nuns, Cindy Sheehanistas and us aging gray-haired, pot-bellied Vets for Peace falling down, writhing on the Boardwalk, gleefully moaning in frenzied ecstasies of simultaneous orgasms!

For myself personally, I believe it is equally important to reflect not only upon the terrible loss of life among combatants, members of the armed forces, but also upon the many more lives lost among civilian populations. During WW II, the Pentagon expanded its definition of combatants to include civilians who might contribute to the war effort in the populated cities of Germany and Japan. Deaths of civilians thereby increased exponentially from this change in policy, as well as from the greatly increased lethality of modern weaponry during WW II — think Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.

It is awful to contemplate the 58,281 US combatants, my peers, killed during the American War in Vietnam from 1963 to 1975. It is beyond horror, however, to reflect upon the reality that we Americans killed some 3-5 million South East Asians, mostly innocent civilians in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A majority of these civilian deaths in Vietnam was due to the use of our superior air power, such as described above in The Bone, from repeated carpet bombing of cities as well as rural areas. Curtis LeMay, the Father of the strategic air command, was notorious for advocating we bomb the North Vietnamese “back to the stone age.” The genocide by the Khmer Rouge of some 2 million Cambodians was directly the result of the strategic bombing of Cambodia ordered by Nixon and Kissenger.  No one knows how many Laotians died in our CIA wars to defeat the Pathet Lao in Laos. Dr. Tom Dooley, one of my teenage heros, was alleged to be a CIA asset and a very effective anti-Commie propagandist for American war in Laos and the rest of Southeast Asia.

In Maya Lin’s winning one page proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, popularly known as the Wall, in Washingon, DC, she wrote the following to describe the ultimate purpose and intent of the memorial:

We the living are brought to a concrete realization of these deaths. Brought to a sharp awareness of such a loss, it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with this loss.  For death, is in the end a personal and private matter, and the area contained with this memorial is a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning

To my mind, there is no better articulation of what the Memorial Day holiday should ideally be. I have visited the Wall on several occasions on Memorial Day during the past several years. I have observed, unfortunately, that there has been increasing efforts by traditional veterans organizations, the Pentagon, and politicians from both parties to depart from Maya Lin’s intentions of quiet reflection and reckoning.  Patriotic celebrations extol the glory and noble cause of all of America’s wars, past as well as current. Sadly in my view, this dishonors the loss of those who have died in America’s wars, especially my war in Vietnam. Memorial Day is not a time for sales, or parades, or speeches, or celebrations of military might. Instead, it is a time for solemn contemplation upon the unnecessary loss of life, both combatant and civilian, that results from any war.


About Thomas Brinson

A peace activist both before and after he returned from duty as a US Army Ordnance Officer in Vietnam, Thomas Brinson landed back home at National Airport in Washington, DC about three hours after Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. This was his “Welcome Home” after a year escorting convoys in a gun jeep throughout the Central Highlands, surviving the Tet Offensive, and serving as Civil Affairs Officer for his battalion.


  1. Dan Wilcox says:

    Well said, Thomas. I’ll see you later for another gathering of veterans/poets.

  2. Pragmatic Realist says:

    The first Memorial Day was put together by recently freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina on the site of a prison camp as a commemoration and thanksgiving for the Union troops who died helping to set them free. It was only later that it became sanitized to get rid of the aspect of the Civil War that was for the abolition of slavery. Everybody wanted to forget about that, and they managed to do it, gradually including Confederate veterans and then veterans of later wars and eventually erasing the memory of black people and slavery. “Decoration Day” is actually a folk tradition of families going to cemeteries and having a reunion while placing flowers on their loved ones’ graves.

    • Thomas Brinson says:

      Thanks jsullivan — this is important historical depth to the tradition of Memorial Day, which truly was to celebrate freedom for all men and women, regardless of race, creed or color. Of course, it was politically expedient to “sanitize” this aspect of the original intention of Decoration Day. We still today, 156 years later, live in an American society largely dominated by the values, traditions and preferences of white males elitists.

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