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A past Musings - still on this editor's mind

Memorial Day was May 29th this year. That is John F. Kennedy’s birthday. I know that because it is also my mother’s birthday, Mary Madeline Nemunis Stern. My mother was born in 1920. She would have been 103.

I believe my mother hated war. She never told me that. Nor did she ever take her five children to a demonstration against the Vietnam War or go on her own. She did tell me this story once, that in 1964 my parents were at some work-related social function of my dad’s, of course, for few women worked outside the home then. He worked for the UAW, the United Auto Workers, as the editor of a weekly labor newspaper. He and his peers were ardent Democrats fully in support of President Lyndon Johnson. Asked in casual conversation about the Vietnam war, she spoke against it, being against war, as most mothers are. My dad shushed her, for she was bucking the party line, ahead of her time as she was in opposing that war.

Memorial Day cemetery services are about our honored dead, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg. The annual Memorial Day Pleasant Ridge Cemetery service is a tradition and ritualistic. At its center is a flag folding ceremony by the Marine Corps League Skagit Valley, which includes a narrative spinning out a story of the American flag from before Betsy Ross stitched hers through Valley Forge and our nation’s wars from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli and all the way to New York’s World Trade Center towers and Afghanistan.

But this recounting skipped – missed, indeed avoided – the very reason Americans gather at cemeteries – our Civil War. This listing of battle heroics went from the 1846 Mexican war to San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898.

The PBS TV website shares this: “Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance of those who have died in service to our country. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers.”

The lyrical recounting at Pleasant Ridge omitting leaving the Union and the shelling of Fort Sumter in 1861 was not missing a minor blip in our history.

A listing of Civil War battlefields rolls off the tongue readily, from Bull Run – twice – to Appomattox. From 1861 to 1865 the landscape ran red with the blood of fallen Americans. That is what we all were, and are, though half of us turned their backs and their guns on the rest of us. We can avoid those facts but there is no getting around those dates with destiny.

All Americans need to face the fact that a segment of our patriotic military veterans are as loyal and fervent in their reverence of the southern confederacy and its stars and bars battle flag as they are to the U.S. flag. Especially now, two years after the Confederate battle flag was brought into the U.S. Capitol for the first time in the spirit of that rebellion against our elected government, it needs to be called out.

The Civil War was not a minor dispute between family members. Southern politicians decided to go to war against the United States in order to maintain slavery.

To honor American war dead from the Civil War is why people first gathered at cemeteries in 1868.

As a society we are torn, not because a sizable faction believe the South’s cause was noble but because all of us have never forthrightly sat with, held and discussed together and entirely embraced the complete truth of the centuries of our slave-holding past.

Glorifying war seems noble and patriotic. Examining with our fathers, sons, family and friends who we really are and what we really did to each other for hundreds of years – through this present moment – is much more difficult.

Some Catholic nuns have long insisted, “If you want peace work for justice.” This country will never be whole until more of us have the courage to reach for justice. Our nation’s military veterans have had many difficult and arduous assignments. This is the most difficult campaign that they – and all of us – have to tackle.

Only the complete, unvarnished, difficult truth will ever set all of us free.

May 29 is also Ethan and Sydney’s birthdays, children of my friends Lisa and Dick. This year the twins turned 22. May their work and their lives result in a world without war, where no one dies a military-related death and no one forgets the root causes of every war that has ever been fought.

Reprinted from the La Conner Weekly News, June 7, 2023.


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