Memorial Day: I’m glad cousin T. only got the Silver Star

Mac Owens does a good job today of reminding us what Memorial Day is about: those American comrades in arms who have fallen in defense of the Republic.

This weekend, we mark the 140th anniversary of the first official observation of the holiday we now call Memorial Day, as established by General John A. Logan’s “General Order No. 11” of the Grand Army of the Republic dated 5 May, 1868. This order reads in part: “The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s order served to ratify a practice that was already widespread, both in the North and the South, in the years immediately following the Civil War.

Alas, for many Americans today, Memorial Day has come to signify nothing more than another three-day weekend, a mere excuse for a weekend cook-out. Such an observance of Memorial Day obscures even the vestiges of its intended meaning: a solemn time, serving both as catharsis for those who fought and survived, and to ensure that those who follow will not forget the sacrifice of those who died that the American Republic and the principles that sustain it, might live.

A little further along Owens discusses when and how the “holiday weekend” swerved from its solemn purpose and illustrates its real meaning with the Medal of Honor heroism of Marine Lieutenant John Bobo:

The posture Americans took toward Memorial Day started to go awry with Vietnam. The press, if not the American people, began to treat soldiers as moral monsters, victims, or both. The “dysfunctional Vietnam vet” became a staple of popular culture. Despite the fact that atrocities were rare, My Lai came to symbolize the entire war. Thanks to the press’s preoccupation with the anomaly of My Lai, Lt. William Calley became the poster boy for Vietnam. The honorable and heroic performance of the vast majority of those who served in Vietnam went largely unrecognized.

For instance, how many Americans know the story of Marine Lieutenant John P. Bobo, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam? Here is part of his citation:

When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines. Lieutenant Bobo was mortally wounded while firing his weapon into the main point of the enemy attack but his valiant spirit inspired his men to heroic efforts. . . .

The reason for this disparity in coverage is simple. My Lai fit the conventional narrative of the anti-war Left; Bobo’s story did not.

My cousin T., with whom I was very close as a boy, had the good fortune of not getting his leg blown off and losing his life, but he performed acts of heroism while serving in Vietnam sufficient to be awarded the Silver Star. So, in that sense, that he lived, I’m glad that it wasn’t the Medal of Honor. I still remember the essence of his citation, which told of how when his platoon came under surprise attack and intense enemy fire, without regard for his own life he dragged wounded comrades to cover and when they were safe took hold of a machine gun and continuing to have no regard for his own life basically killed the enemy with relentless vengeance.

Still, Memorial Day isn’t about my cousin T., for all his heroism. It’s about his comrades from all wars who left their lives on the field of battle and didn’t make it back home. They are easy to forget amidst the cookouts and the kegs and the arts and crafts fairs, but it is for their honor and sacrifice, and our benefit, that we need to remember, and know why we’re remembering, them.

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