The Fight for Memorial Day

You might think this article comes a little late since it’s being published after Memorial Day. But now that Memorial Day has come and gone, it’s worth thinking about what it represents and why the debate about Memorial Day is so crucial. “Debate,” you might say. “What debate?”

Yes, there is a debate. On one side are those who say that the purpose of Memorial Day is, or should be, to honor soldiers who have fought, or are fighting, for our freedom. This is the view we hear a lot on and around Memorial Day. We hear it from presidents, governors, congressmen, mayors, military officers, and military analysts. On the other side are those who say that the purpose of Memorial Day is to mourn those who lost their lives in wars and to reflect on how to prevent this from happening in the future. We hear this view from antiwar activists and those who, more generally, are fairly skeptical of governments’ motives and actions.

I would love not to have such a debate. And that’s why I waited. There are a lot of people in the United States whose relatives or friends died or were wounded in foreign wars. It must be hard for them to hear or read armchair analysts like me talking about the “real meaning” of Memorial Day.

But the debate is important because, unfortunately, one of the main ways most Americans get their history is from what is said on national holidays, especially July 4, Memorial Day, Presidents’ Day, and Veterans’ Day. There is so much emotion around those days that various advocates can get away with historical misinformation cloaked in sentiment. I think that’s why they fight so hard for their meaning of Memorial Day: it’s a way to accomplish with sentiment what is much harder to accomplish with rational argument.

Exhibit A of the tendency to cloak argument in sentiment is a recent essay for National Review Online, “Mystic Chords of Memory,” by contributing editor Mackubin Thomas Owens. “Mac” Owens, as he is known to friends and colleagues, is an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Before I get to my criticism, I want to note that I spent a weekend at a conference with him about two years ago, and I like and respect him. He’s a serious academic with an important viewpoint that he articulates well. It’s exactly that fact, though, that makes his article disturbing.

Start with a passage from his first paragraph. In telling us the origin of Memorial Day, Owens quotes an order from a post-Civil War general, Gen. John A. Logan, who designated May 30, 1868, as a day for “strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion” (emphasis mine).

Owens doesn’t comment on whether he thought the Union soldiers were defending their country. Certainly, there is a lot of controversy about this. On the one hand were those, like Abraham Lincoln, who thought that secession was impermissible and who, therefore, thought they were defending their country and that the Confederates were attacking their country. On the other hand were many on the Confederate side who, though they were largely defending slavery, also maintained that states had the right to secede. So, in a sense, both sides thought they were defending “their country.” It’s just that they had different boundary lines in mind for the country.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Owens found nothing objectionable in the above paragraph. But, if so, that would lead to the following question: Must one side’s cause be just for it to be right to honor the sacrifices of those who died fighting for it? Surely it can’t be the case that both sides in the Civil War were right. Whatever your view, at least one side (and maybe both) was wrong. So how could it be right to honor those who did wrong?

Or, since the Civil War is so controversial and still generates so much emotion and controversy among Americans, consider a case where there is less controversy: the Nazis. Even though there is still some disagreement among Americans about whether the U.S. government should have entered World War II, there is an almost unanimous belief that the Nazis were bad guys. Imagine, then, that Germans had a day in which they indiscriminately honored their soldiers for every war in which the German government fought. (Fortunately, they don’t.) Would Owens say that that was just fine? Or would he insist on judging the cause in which they fought before deciding to honor their loss? I honestly don’t know.

The answer matters. Is Memorial Day a day to mourn the loss of those who died, regardless of what they fought for? I think it should be. I think the Vietnam War was an unjust war in which the U.S. government was the main villain. My reason is simple: When one government attacks people in another country, even though unprovoked, I think the government that attacks is the villain. But that doesn’t stop me from mourning the loss of over 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died there. The loss of these mostly young lives was tragic. And when I mourn their loss, I should, and do, curse the U.S. politicians who put them there.

But Owens wants to make it more. He wants to impose meaning on the sacrifice of those who died in Vietnam and other wars. He actually starts out fine. In discussing individual acts of heroism by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, Owens quotes a statement from a book, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, by Glenn Gray:

“Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.”

This accords with my own discussions with various military officers who have come back from Iraq: Their sacrifices are for those living, breathing human beings around them, not for some abstraction. Owens writes that it accords with his own experiences (he was a Marine in Vietnam). But he doesn’t stop there. He writes:

“But while the individual soldier may focus on the particulars of combat, Memorial Day permits us to enlarge the individual soldier’s view, giving broader meaning to the sacrifice that was accepted of some but offered by all, not only acknowledging and remembering the sacrifice, but validating it.

“In the history of the world, many good soldiers have died bravely and honorably for bad or unjust causes. Americans are fortunate in that we have been given a way of avoiding this situation by linking the sacrifice of our soldiers to the meaning of the nation.”

In other words, implies Owens, these soldiers thought that they were risking their lives to help their fellow soldiers, but “we” know that their cause was much bigger. What gall! How does he presume to know the motives of those who have died?

Moreover, how is it that Americans are exempt from judging whether the cause was “bad or unjust”? The second paragraph quoted above is as bald a statement of “American exceptionalism” as one is likely to find by a respected U.S. academic. It’s also empty. He doesn’t tell us what about “the meaning of the nation” helps us avoid judging the justness of the cause.

He does try, though. In the very next paragraph, Owens writes:

“The deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg, of those who died during the Civil War as a whole, and indeed of those who have fallen in all the wars of America, are validated by reference to the nation and its founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Owens unwittingly accomplished one of his goals with this paragraph: He caused me, on Memorial Day, to read the Declaration of Independence yet again so that I could find the principles in that magnificent document that the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam died for. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. There are many references to King George III’s nasty violations of Americans’ economic and political freedoms: imposing taxes, cutting off trade, and preventing legislative bodies from meeting, to name three. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall the North Vietnamese doing any of that. And how is it possible that those who died on both sides of the Civil War died for America’s founding principles? Do principles have any meaning if they are so elastic that diametrically opposites sides fight and die for them? Or does Owens think of principles the way Groucho Marx did: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

In his last paragraph, Owens makes one last try to link the deaths of U.S. soldiers to larger principles. Earlier, he had introduced John Bobo and Paul Ray Smith, two U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam and Iraq, respectively, and whom he regards as heroes:

“By all means, have a hot dog or a hamburger this weekend. If you’re close to a beach or a lake, take advantage of the nice weather and go. But on Memorial Day, take some time to remember the John Bobos and the Paul Ray Smiths who died to make your weekend possible.”

How did they and men like them make our weekend possible? Is Mackubin Thomas Owens, a serious scholar, claiming that if the United States government had not attacked Vietnam and had not attacked Iraq, Memorial Day weekend would have been impossible? Yes, his statement means that.

I’ve got a different suggestion. Exercise your freedom on future Memorial Days in any way that you wish as long as it’s peaceful. Take a minute or more to mourn the loss of so many U.S. soldiers and foreign soldiers, as well as millions of innocent civilians, who lost their lives because some government, whether the U.S., the USSR, the Nazis, or the Japanese government, killed them. Remember that almost all of those who die in war – even most of the soldiers who fought on the German side in World War II – are relatively innocent, even if their governments are not. And try your best to hold politicians accountable so that we’ll have fewer such deaths in the future rather than more.

Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at