Memorial Day is soon upon us, a day that is personal to veterans of foreign wars and rather abstract to us freeloaders and draft dodgers, and seldom the twain shall meet, but this Day is one of those occasions. I speak as one who got a notice from my draft board to report for induction back in 1967 and I wrote to them and said I was opposed to the war and wouldn’t go, and somehow the matter disappeared and the FBI never knocked on my door.
A classmate of mine, Henry Hill, died in Vietnam, in Quang Ngai, at the age of 24, a star athlete and class president, a first lieutenant, infantry commander, died of multiple fragmentation wounds, and I think, “The Army was unable to turn this guy into a deadly killer. He thought he was still on the football team.” I don’t feel responsible for Henry’s death, I think Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey were, and plenty of others who knew what was going on.
We honor Henry for answering the call. There surely were ways he could’ve avoided it. He could’ve found a friendly doctor to find something wrong with him. He was a bright guy and he was Black, he could’ve applied for some advanced training program for which his smarts and race and personality would’ve been prominent assets, but he went with his infantry unit to Vietnam. The nation depended on men like him in 1861 and 1941, the two Good Wars, but the call was the same for the mistaken wars, and those who answered are deserving of equal honor.
Lincoln stood on a platform on the field at Gettysburg in November 1863, four and a half months after the great battle, and while he referred to the “honored dead,” he knew that it had taken the whole four months to make the battlefield decent, that when Lee’s army yielded the field in the heat of July, the Union Army followed close on his tail, and the bodies of thousands of dead lay torn and twisted, swollen, rotting, eventually to be laid in shallow trenches covered with a few inches of dirt, where pigs and wild dogs found them and dragged them out to be chewed upon until finally decent burial took place in the fall, which was not even complete when Lincoln arrived on November 19.
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He was sick with smallpox, feverish, had a severe headache, and sat for hours listening to dreadful music and a pompous speech by a gasbag named Edward Everett (“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice,” it begins and goes on for two hours), and then Lincoln delivered his remarks, not even 300 words, in a weak voice, muffled by the restless crowd, numb after Everett’s effusions.
The country was weary of war and ready to sue for peace and a year later Lincoln would’ve lost the election to George McClellan who would’ve settled with the Confederacy and we’d be two nations today, but Sherman’s advance through Georgia and the fall of Atlanta swung the election to Lincoln, and here we are, divided again, confused as ever, gasbags on every hand, mendacious politicians, demagogues, grandstanders, but what Lincoln said that day is even more true now: it is up to us the living to give the nation a new birth so that Henry Hill and all the others did not die in vain.
I think the conservative Mitt Romney has a good point when he says it’s no time to transform America, that we need to reunite the country, which means paying attention to public safety, public health, schools, jobs, infrastructure, which doesn’t lend itself to high-flying oratory but it’s what we all need. Government by a few people for the benefit of some of their people is a dishonor to the dead. Let’s do better.
I write this from Minneapolis, not far from where Henry and I attended high school, a city that got hit hard by COVID and crime and a loss of confidence in city government, which is all Democratic. The happiest place in town is the Twins’ ballpark, a friendly place where you feel safe and can rub elbows with your fellow Minnesotans, and otherwise there’s a sense of unease that calls for a rebirth of freedom to move around and live your life without fear. This is not my problem, I’m irrelevant, the city belongs to the young parents with little kids and mortgage payments, and I’d gently suggest that a conservative Mormon might be a good choice for mayor. Just a thought.