Thoughts for Memorial Day: Heroism vs. Moneymaking

We remember how the neoconservatives will solve warfare as a way to out American softness and recover the noble heroism associated with past military victories.  Here is a snippet from the post-Civil War period, which adds an interesting twist: the editorial in question makes a distinction between the ethic of warfare and the sordid moneymaking at the time.  Today, the presumptive ethical basis of both the military and the moneymaking crowd deserve our highest admiration, even though the moneymakers are engaged in warfare against the same people that the military is supposed to be protecting.



94-5: “The fervor with which Americans practiced the rituals of Memorial Day began to fade in the late 1870s and early 1880s.  Graceful popular ceremonies,” declared The New York Tribune in May 1878, no longer fit in a society characterized by “the pioneers of the prairie and the speculators in railway stock.” Bitterness had waned, and as “individual sorrow for the fallen fades away,” said the Tribune, Decoration Day “gradually loses its best significance.”  By 1880, the same paper editorialized on how Decoration Day had “become coarser and more blurred” in its meaning, and how it had fallen into the “slough of politics.”  In the Gilded Age, the Tribune claimed that the truly “loyal” would continue to honor the Civil War dead, but also make every “effort to put out of sight the causes of the war, the hate and bitterness which we thought immortal.” At stake now was the next generation and the social and moral order. Civil War memorialization should not be used for political purposes among the children born since the war, claimed the Tribune, but the sacrifice of soldiers should very much be used as lessons in morality and patriotism. “The days they [postwar children) have been born in are not heroic,” declared the Tribune, “they are full of fraud, corruption, bargain, and sale.  Men are not pushing to the battlefield to die for an idea; they are pushing into place.” As an antidote to America’s “sordid expertness in money-getting,” the editors spoke for a large cross-section of the culture that now looked to the Civil War dead, as well as to living veterans, as the alternative to their unheroic age, as sources of honest passion, higher morality, something “noble and true … kept for our children.”


3 comments so far

  1. mark hansen on

    a few years ago i attened a memorial day ceremony in redding.
    the speakers, most of whom were politicians, seemed to have confused it with veterens day.
    of course the dead don’t vote, except in chicago.

  2. Todd on

    The First Memorial Day: You’ve come a long way, Baby!

  3. mperelman on

    Thank you very much for pointing me to the lectures.

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