Captain Wilfred Owen, The Manchesters
KIA Nov. 4, 1918
I'm very behind on blogging, my apologies.
Monday was Memorial Day, a Federal holiday which was first known as Decoration Day. Until passage of the Uniform Holiday Bill in 1968, it was celebrated on May 30th, which is today, but Congress made it and three other holidays fall on either Monday or Friday so as to make 3-day weekends. Originally, the people in the northern parts of my country followed the examples of former Confederate states in honoring their fallen, and a General Logan thought the occasion up and started to formalize a practice which first began in Waterloo, New York in 1866.
One suspects it naturally became a time to meditate upon the Republic we had become, echoing Benjamin Franklin's famous phrase, "A republic, if you can keep it," an issue not fully clarified until 1865. Many minds including mine aren't so sure that clarification or the means by which it was sought were a good thing, but the deep schism noted by Franklin's impish sense of satire had finally, for good and ill, been joined by blood. People low and high, North and South, would go to decorate the graves of young men with flowers, and to remember the half million and more souls who died from cannon, sword, shot and disease on the way to making it so.
I appreciated the weekend and took full advantage of it with my little family and our friends, but I'd have to agree with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which said in their 2002 address, "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance..." I looked for a parade to attend in Seattle, but couldn't find one or any ceremonial observances whatsoever. I'd been meaning to put up the verse of Wilfred Owen's above on the occasion, and am just getting to it now, but this is the traditional Memorial Day, when in my youth almost every burg, hamlet, or town like mine would have a big parade. Like many Americans, my feelings on America's impulse for Dumb Wars are generally negative, and sometimes this can mix up my feelings on veterans, but even so. I would've liked to go to a parade honoring our past and the sacrifices brave men, women, and children made for each other.
Golgotha, in Wil Owen's verse above, refers to a hillock in Jerusalem whose rocks made, from one viewpoint, the distinctive shape of a skull. From its Hebraic root it would've been known as "the rolling skull," and was a place of execution, conveniently located relatively close to tombs. From the Latin calvaria ("skull") it is known in the New Testament as Calvary, the hill where a man named Jesus was said by his friends to have been crucified, and, over a century later, noted in short, controversial fragments passed down in the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, and Eusebius. The original topography of Golgotha has been forgotten, but the location is being fiercely debated, and its contours are ever being worked out anew by commanders who must send soldiers to their deaths.
Wil Owen knowingly compares himself to Judas, close friend and betrayer of Christ, with this line: "with a piece of silver I buy him every day". He is trying to prepare his men against the worst, and he feels like he's betraying not just them, but sacred humanity itself. Owen was a gay man, a captain for the Manchesters who had to lead boys from his home city to near-certain death and traumatic injury in World War One. He had a nervous breakdown during the awful height of what was dubbed by an old, patrician US President named Woodrow Wilson, even as he opportunistically plunged his country into it as: "the war to end all wars." Owen started writing poetry as therapy in the wake of a nervous breakdown induced by combat, recovering enough to return to his men. To do so, he broke the promises he made to his lover and to a literary circle of friends who admired his writing, and knew the senseless nature of the conflict. Owen hopped a ferry-boat back to Belgium, and died soon thereafter, winning the Victoria Cross while leading his men on an assault across a canal.
War has become less about being gay or straight, child or adult, woman or man than about trying to shield the ones you love from death via the indiscriminate chemical reactions of high explosives delivered by the messengers of distant psychopaths. In that, every one of us is a commander. Command, I suppose, is about doing your damnedest not to betray your charges while sheer idiocy is passed down from above, and telling them, "Listen to me, be quiet, everything is going to be alright." And it will be, it will be.