I don't celebrate on Memorial Day.
Remember, yes -- that is the point.
Commemorate, if you prefer, though that implies some manner of
ritual, or some form of public ceremony, held at a slight remove from
emotion, as the crowd along a parade route is both at a remove from the
parade and part of it.
But to celebrate, to call it a day of relaxation or take it as a day of revelry --
I stopped doing that after I heard a particular song, in a particular movie. The movie itself is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Wherein the effort to find a Union soldier's grave, supposedly full of
gold, is shown to be rather petty in comparison to the war itself -- which is presented primarily as a tragedy. A
useless battle over a little bridge in a bleak corner of the West; a
field of shallow graves marked by crude crosses; a stockade for
prisoners of war, where weeping men are made to kneel in the dirt and
sing a pretty song to drown out the cries from men being tortured --
You would think that the officer who chose the song would pick
something less critical of the war, but who knows what he was thinking?
As for the director, one might say he chose the song to
distill the movie's message. As the final verse goes:
Count all the crosses, and count all the tears --
These are the losses, and sad souvenirs.
This devastation once was a nation --
So fall the dice. How high is the price we pay?
After I heard that song my Memorial Days became rather grim.
am always a little conflicted about the song. I know the political
tendency of Americans -- especially white Americans -- is to elide the cause of our civil war, and elude the full implications. The decades after the
war would not be the last time that reconciling white Americans meant
leaving black Americans out in the cold, open and vulnerable to the
people who would never stop trying to subjugate them.
Tempting to say both sides were right, and both sides were wrong, so as to bury the hatchet --
And yet: those who would subjugate black Americans
dig the hatchet up whenever they think any government is trying to stop
them. Be it in the decades after our civil war, or the decades after the
second World War, or the decades after the country chose a black man to
lead us towards a gentler peace and greater justice -- they do not
forgive any movement towards the true power and freedom of black
Americans, except by the acquiscence of the country to their predation,
for any move towards freedom is a move away from what they have built,
and threatens their coffers. As their coffers were filled by slavery, so
they seek to maintain it, in one form or another.
Thus the old song from slaves long ago remains relevant, and its hope is ever present:
Oh Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn,
Oh Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Pharaoh's army got drownded. Oh, Mary, don't you weep.
I do not know.
when I hear the soldier's lament, I wonder if it was made to elude that
question. Perhaps it is that the director, being Italian, at a far
remove from this continent and its ways, only saw the war as it was described to him, and thus saw it as the
hatchet-burying narrative would have it, and so in his movie made no
judgment nor mention of why the war began, nor what cause stood at its
center by the end.
Or it could be that the lyricist, being not Ennio Morricone but a white American man, may have written the lyrics to paper over that question, and the compoaser and director alike looked at it without considering it too thoroughly.
Which would assume signores Leone and Morricone would ever dare do sloppy work.
Most likely it is that,
if the movie is presented as tragedy, Leone couldn't introduce any of
the concepts that have led Americans to call the American Civil War a glorious struggle of freedom. No John Brown's Body nor grapes
of wrath for him. In the battle for the bridge, Captain Clinton sees his
job as pointless, and that's the story the movie tells. No sense
muddling the message by talking about glory. Even if the southwest did
have its own battles for freedom, separate from the question of
slavery, which could have been shown in the background.
For, if I speak of freedom only in terms of black
Americans, I forget the peoples who were also targeted for predation by white Americans, whose resistance to them began long
before slavery was planted here, whose story always complicates the simple narrative
of White versus Black --
And as I speak of many peoples to
think of them as a whole is complicated, if not impossible, for one
tribe does not speak for another nor decide the same as the other. Over
the centuries of struggle each tribe had interests separate from and
sometimes against their neighbors, such as the people of pale faces
could exploit to divide and conquer them.
In the case of the Civil
War there were more such tribes who allied with the Confederate
forces than with the Union. As it was in the rebellion that established
the United States, as it was in the War of 1812, which was, in North
America, sought by paleface warhawks as a battle against Indians -- in each such
war that threatens the existence of the Federal Government of the
United States, the victory and continued survival of that government has
been the loss of many tribes and the deaths of their people.
wish they had not sided with the British Empire, nor with the
Confederate slave-holders, yet I understand why they did, for so many of
the people we call American heroes were also villainous towards native
tribes -- George Washington and Abraham Lincoln alike. The hope of those
tribes was the scattering of the forces set against them and in the
Revolutionary War, at least, it was not a hopeless effort, nor would it
have looked hopeless to them in 1812 nor 1860. For the sake of those
people I will not sing patriotic songs, nor wave the flag, nor call the American Revolution nor the American Civil
War an untarnished good.
Nor any war. Hard to see blood
spilled out on the ground, be it for the best of causes. Blood spilled
and bone scattered. Young rascals and old coots alike left as shells, empty as the casings spilled about them, and these
days we send mostly the bright young ones to that end. Lao Tzu said a
general must mourn their victories.
And there are many of us come
from overseas who have seen their loved ones die before them, seen
bodies scattered amid the rubble of what they thought would stand, as so
many wars these days are civil wars fought in and over civil settings,
thereby to flatten those settings -- how could I celebrate any war, in
the face of such people? How could I say any war was for a good cause?
And yet -- Pharaoh's army got drownded. Hard to ignore that point.
And for the folks who fought for the life of their people against the federal government, and lost, I wonder if I would dare tell them that war could have no noble cause.
if I consider Memorial Day as anything, it is a day to mourn victory.
Never to forget its price nor what it purchased. Never to speak of that
purchase as if it were for the petty game of nations. It is not for
for them. It is for the living and the dead. One life given for
another, or for many. Perhaps given freely. Perhaps a trade made by
someone else far away. Therein lies the tragedy.
part, Sergio Leone did not let his movie side with the Union's political
cause. If he sided with anyone, it was with the soldiers. The song is
called "Story of a Soldier" and it shows the battles through a soldier's
eyes. Smoke, cannons, flags in the distance too ruined to read, crosses
and tears counted one by one.
The movie's main battle is, as I
said, useless. Not from the perspective of whoever gave the orders, but
certainly from the perspective of Captain Clinton. His men have to take
the Branstone Bridge. If the Confederate forces also want it, then might
as well blow the damn thing and leave, and he's desperate to try. But
orders are to take the
bridge. Maybe as a political favor, maybe to achieve a larger strategic
goal. Either way thousands of people will die. That's why Captain
Clinton reeks of alcohol. He couldn't handle the job any other way.
when two scruffy and disobedient recruits go and destroy the bridge
after all, though it be for a selfish and petty goal, Captain Clinton's
dying words are in gratitude. Thousands of people will live. That's what
he cares about.
You would think the larger scale of taking
that bridge would be more important! Politically, strategically, maybe.
But for the life of each man involved -- not so much. They can't see
that far. To them the small scale is what they know. And maybe it's more
important anyway. The song is called "The Story of a Soldier." Maybe
that's what the movie is actually about. And the two bandits are just a
way of bringing us to the place where we see what became of him.
one he is among thousands, that's harder to say. There's an Arch
Stanton on one grave marker and 'unknown' on the other. We don't know
anything about either man. The lives of both men were on the small scale,
not big enough for anyone outside their little worlds to care.
But someone living on the big scale got a lot of people into a big mess, and
war means spending a lot of the small scale for the sake of the big
scale. Basically shovelling your world into the furnace bit by bit
to keep the engine running. Sometimes it means you lose your peach
orchard; sometimes it means the army needs your 500-year-old church bell
for scrap metal. Hard to tell if it's worth it at the time. Or when
you're laying flowers on a grave later.
But when you lay flowers on a grave, are you saying the war was worth it?
Or is it an apology for letting a bad situation get out of hand?
If you're going to lay your flower on the grave and say the war was worth it you had better include an apology because that's a hell of a lot smaller price to pay than what you're looking at.
Now as for why I post this today and not the 25th -- as I said, I don't celebrate on Memorial Day, and I don't much like the fact that it was moved from the 30th of May to the last monday in May to give people a 3-day weekend. That all feels a bit crass. Seems like it made it easy to forget why this holiday exists. Everyone takes a trip to funtown for the day.
Well, fine. I can't blame people for doing that if they don't remember why the holiday exists. We don't much emphasize the Civil War part of it anyway. Easy enough to forget when you turn a day of memory into a day for parades.
I'm not trying to spoil the day for you when you were looking for a rare chance to relax. Go and have fun.
Just let me stay here with the graves.