According to Wikipedia, Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day (because people had begun decorating, both during and after the Civil War, the graves of family members who had been killed):
On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic - the organization for Union Civil War veterans - Logan issued a proclamation that "Decoration Day" should be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; according to folklore, the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle.Over the decades, Memorial Day became a national holiday and a community celebration of our military and its fallen heroes. "Taps" is the somber traditional song played in Memorial Day events:
Events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near the battlefields and therefore mostly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.
The Memorial Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the War - and at first to rehash the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation. People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the "baptism of blood" on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s much of the rancor was gone, and the speeches praised the brave soldiers both Blue and Gray. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world.
While I appreciate the need and the desire to honor those who have served and died for their country, today I want to offer a slightly different perspective - one that I have only come to over the past 15 years or so. Additionally, in the pictures I am including in this post, I want to highlight the humanity of these men and women in such inhumane circumstances.
When I was young (teens and twenties) I tended to think of soldiers as brain-washed kids whose souls had been removed in basic training so that they could be made into efficient killing machines (think of the basic training part of Full Metal Jacket). Maybe part of that view was shaped by my father's insistence that I follow the family tradition and join the Navy or the Marines (all males on my dad's side have done this as far back as anyone knows), and my sense of relief (yes, I mean this) when he died before I had to make the choice to do as he wanted and be miserable, or refuse and be rejected as a wuss and a coward.
I was not cut out to be military. I knew that as a child, and my life has born out that instinct.
But I know now that the men and women who serve are often horrified by the things they have to do in combat, and with a few exceptions (those who are not mentally well), killing is the last thing they want to do. Some studies have shown that during WWII and earlier wars, as many as 80% of soldiers did not fire their weapons in combat situation (these numbers come from U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, whose methods and veracity have been challenged). Marshall felt that the soldiers simply could not take another life - and, as draftees, they had not been trained to do so.
By Vietnam that had changed, with up to 95% firing in combat situations. Part of the reason this changed was due to the training they received (from Greater Good, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman):
Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare, conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. The triad of methods used to enable men to overcome their innate resistance to killing includes desensitization, classical and operant conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms.As it turns out, however, killing people carries a cost to those who do so. The numbers are alarming, with between 18 and 54 percent of the 2.8 million soldiers who did tours of duty in Vietnam suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) These numbers are significantly higher than previous wars. A 1988 study (Jeanne and Steven Stellman at Columbia University), the first one to look at the environmental influence on PTSD, found that those most likely to suffer PTSD served in high intensity combat situations (again from Greater Good):
By the time a soldier does kill in combat, he has rehearsed the process so many times that he is able to, at one level, deny to himself that he is actually killing another human being. One British veteran of the Falklands, trained in the modern method, told Holmes that he “thought of the enemy as nothing more or less than Figure II [man-shaped] targets.”
There is “a natural disinclination to pull the trigger… when your weapon is pointed at a human,” says Bill Jordan, a career U.S. Border Patrol officer and veteran of many gunfights. “To aid in overcoming this resistance it is helpful if you can will yourself to think of your opponent as a mere target and not as a human being. In this connection you should go further and pick a spot on your target. This will allow better concentration and further remove the human element from your thinking.”
These veterans suffer far higher incidence of divorce, marital problems, tranquilizer use, alcoholism, joblessness, heart disease, and ulcers. As far as PTSD symptoms are concerned, soldiers who were in noncombat situations in Vietnam were found to be statistically indistinguishable from those who spent their entire enlistment in the U.S.The PTSD rates seems to be even higher now (and we may not know the full extent of the problem until 5 or 10 years after these wars are over) - but the walls between the soldiers who carry this wound and getting some help are often daunting.
During the Bush administration, the VA was directed to significantly reduce its diagnoses of PTSD, an order that was overturned by Obama. But the challenges to getting service remain, not least of which is the shortage of social workers (the VA does not yet hire counselors, marriage and family therapists, or licensed substance abuse counselors, despite regulations having been changed to include counselors and other masters level therapists).
According to this 2010 article from the American Observer:
You can listen to one soldier's story, that of Matt Southworth:Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War . . . . On the anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan the veteran's group declared its aim to halt the redeployment of soldiers with psychological health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder , traumatic brain injuries and military sexual trauma.Veterans describe various institutional challenges that lie along two fronts—getting soldiers the treatment and time to heal, but first, simply ensuring that soldiers who suffer from trauma are identified. They attribute the challenges to stigma, inadequate screening, insufficient resources, and ultimately the military, whose ultimate goal is returning service members to active duty.
Listen to Matt Southworth talk about his experience
Top officials in the VA, as late as 2009/2010, do not even believe PTSD is a legitimate diagnosis. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the VA, Michael McLendon, was quoted in a Boston Review (Nov/Dec 2009) article as follows:
[PTSD] is not a diagnosis based on empirical evidence, but rather . . . it is an artificial construct erected by a vote of selected psychiatrists. This does not mean that there are not problems that certain individuals do have [and] issues that need to be addressed. But rather, it means that we have created policies and programs that have not served veterans well.This lack of support is part of the problem. More than any other group, the military should understand the psychological cost of killing. But treating PTSD takes time and that costs money when veterans are involved. Part of why Bush and the VA wanted to minimize the numbers of soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD was that it was adding up to a lot of money. It's much easier to deny their symptoms, give them a collection of medications (Alternet, 2010) that amounts to a chemical straightjacket [Paxil (an antidepressant), Klonopin (a mood stabilizer), and Seroquel (a controversial anti-psychotic drug)], and send them back for another tour of duty.
Medications can be necessary for some survivors, but individual and/or group therapy is even more important. Returning for another tour of duty is NOT a good clinical choice, even if it seems to be a good financial choice on paper (retraining a soldier lost to PTSD can be very expensive - but we ask them to serve as volunteers, and promise to take care of them, so spend the damn money to train someone else, and spend the damn money to help the soldier with PTSD).
The lack of real or perceived social support is often part of the problem.
In a 2003 study from Karestan C. Koenen (VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston Medical Center), Jeanne Mager Stellman and Steven D. Stellman (Columbia University), and John F. Sommer Jr. (The American Legion), conducted over a 14-year period with Vietnam veterans, the key to recovery from PTSD is perceived social support.
High combat exposure, perceived negative community attitudes at homecoming, minority race, depression symptoms at Time 1, and more anger at Time 1 predicted a more chronic course. Community involvement at Time 1 was protective and associated with decreased risk at Time 2. Discomfort in disclosing Vietnam experiences was associated with an increased risk for developing PTSD but did not predict its course. Combat exposure predicted PTSD course more strongly than any other risk factor. Findings suggest recovery from PTSD is significantly influenced by perceived social support.Social support is exactly what the Vietnam vets did not get. I recently spoke with a 73-year-old veteran of that war, who had served in a combat role, who said, with sadness and some tears, that no one had ever thanked him for his service to his country - not family, not friends, and not co-workers. He said that experience made him bitter and hurt him deeply.
Things have shifted in the last couple of decades. Many Americans opposed both Gulf Wars and the war in Afghanistan, but even among far left liberals the slogan was, "Hate the War, Love the Soldier."
So on this memorial day, let us praise the fallen, those who gave their lives for their country, but let us also love the men and women who have returned from any and all of our wars with psyches broken by the horrors they have seen and committed. No person should have to carry that burden alone, or in silence.
Where the government is failing these walking casualties of war, let us take the lead and give them the social support that can make the difference between a lifetime of suffering or the promise of healing and a return to a life in the world, not apart from it, an outsider in one's own home and country.
These men and women have paid a deep price in service to their country, our country, we owe them some compassion and some support.
Want to help?
(inclusion of listing here does not imply endorsement)
- Soldier's Best Friend is non-profit dedicated to providing "United States military veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) with a trained Service or Therapeutic Companion Dog, most of these dogs of which will be rescued from local shelters."
- VA Voluntary Service - Volunteer to help care for wounded veterans.
- Angels of Mercy / No Soldier Left in Need - Donate clothes to wounded soldiers returning stateside, or donate to long-term rehabilitation programs.
- Wounded Warriors Fund - Donates everything from phone cards to TVs to wounded soldiers.
- Adopt A US Soldier - “Adoption” is as easy as writing letters or as involved as sending care packages.