Memorial Day is a time Americans pause and reflect on the greatest sacrifice a soldier can offer — his or her life. At the very core of the holiday is a sober recognition that throughout the course of U.S. history tens of thousands of young men and women have died fighting forces that have threatened the American way of life. For some of us, that reflection is all too personal, with holes in our lives that can never be replaced. A photo of a proud young person in uniform, beaming with pride, on the mantle, an empty chair at the dinner table, a mother’s deep sigh.
From the Revolutionary War, through the conflicts and wars of the 19th and 20th centuries many lives have been offered on the altar of freedom: between 600,000-800,000 dead during the Civil War; 400,000 sacrificed in WWII; around 60,000 died in action in Vietnam; 4,500 in Iraq; while around 2,400 have given the ultimate in Afghanistan. The overwhelming majority was young people, in their prime, with a lifetime ahead of them and mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, spouses and sweethearts back home.
The first official Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day), was instituted following the Civil War in 1868 by Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, John A. Logan. He proclaimed the day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The very first observation took place in 1865, just one month after the Confederacy surrender, by a group of freed slaves, as they honored the fallen of the Union Army. On Memorial Day 1934, FDR gave a speech at Gettysburg appealing to the unity of Americans, both north and south — and all sections — made possible by the nation’s fallen: “Here in the presence of the spirits of those who fell on this ground, we give renewed assurance that the passions of war are moldering in the tombs of time and the purposes of peace are flowing in the hearts of a united people.”
I have never served in our armed forces. I teach college history. In my courses I often present war from the soldier’s point of view. What was it like for a 19-year-old boy from Indiana, or from Madera, as he lie prostrate in the beach at Normandy, his legs blown off, his entrails hanging out, while crying out for his mom? So besides the “rah rah rah” patriotic celebrations, the hot dog eating, the baseball games, and the crass sales at department stores, Memorial Day should arrest our minds and hearts, turning them to the moments that a young person gave their last breath on the beach at D Day, in the jungle in Vietnam, on a roadside in Afghanistan. Memorial Day is about remembering the dead, their young lives cut short, the many hundreds of thousands who have died for America, for us.
Memorial Day is not a time for partisanship, it is not a time to use the death of our soldiers as a moment for political gain or antagonism. It is not a day to malign another American because their beliefs do not align with our own. To do so, to use campaign-style political meanness on that deeply sobering day is to disrespect the fallen who gave their lives so that all Americans may possess any political belief they may choose. In his farewell address, George Washington said, “the name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation from local discrimination.” Unfortunately, on Memorial Day, this is what happened in downtown Fresno at Chukchansi Park.
Whether an accident, or whether through a calculated spirit of political divisiveness, or perhaps a mixture of the two, a short patriotic video, with a strong right-wing message, was shown at Chukchansi Park to a Memorial Day crowd catching a baseball game. At only a little over three minutes, the video uses strong patriotic images of fallen U.S. soldiers and their loved ones at their gravesites, mixed with wartime images, jet fighters, battleships, soldiers in combat — images more akin to a U.S. Army commercial, or Veterans Day tribute, not necessarily Memorial Day, but this is not a major point.
President Ronald Reagan narrates in the background. Besides using a video featuring Reagan’s voice — a point most Americans wouldn’t make a fuss about — nothing in the video smacks of partisanship or the divisions now so rampant in our society. That is, not till about the 3:00-minute mark. After three minutes of patriotic imagery, the video then highlights our nation’s enemies. Leading into the photos of America’s enemies, Reagan says, “We must realize that no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have; it is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.” At that point photos of Antifa appear across the screen. While an image of Kim Jong-un flashes, then, “As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries…” Then, a photo of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), followed by images of Fidel Castro and Antifa, with Reagan in the background, “they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people, we will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it. We will not surrender for it, now, or ever. We are Americans.”
Words matter. This is something I tell my students. Choose the correct terminology to describe your point, to highlight a historical experience, to describe an event, an emotion, a person. “Will,” “moral courage,” “free men and women,” and “sacrifice,” are juxtaposed with “adversaries,” “terrorism,” “prey,” “enemies of freedom,” and “potential adversaries.” On the one hand, freedom-loving Americans who, filled with moral courage, stand fast in the face of America’s enemies, while on the other, homegrown terrorists like Antifa, and foreign adversaries such as Kim Jong-un and Castro, seek to destroy America, alongside congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez—enemy of freedom, or terrorist, or both?
Ever since its inception Fresno County has been a bastion of conservatism. Looking over the 1870 census, roughly 70% of Fresno’s citizens originated in the Confederacy. The first movers and shakers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges, police officers and sheriffs were overwhelmingly from the South. In the 1920s Fresno was a major stronghold for the KKK on the West Coast. The year 1924 witnessed the zenith of Klan activity in Fresno, with an office at the Brix building in downtown Fresno. At that time, a majority of the police force and a good portion of the fire department were KKK members. In sum, the legacy of Southern mores dominated Fresno culture throughout the 20th century, an influence still with us in the 21st century. Confederate flags are often seen flying from big trucks going down Clovis Avenue. Many of today’s Valley’s farmers may trace their heritage back to the South. This is a conservatism deeply rooted in American history, in soil, and power.
Yet, not all subscribe to right wing ideals. Roughly half of Fresno’s residences claim Mexican heritage, add to that a great number of Southeast Asian immigrants, and other brown-skinned people. Not all lean left, and often their own lives are more conservative in practice than most white Americans; it is complicated. The point is, Fresno is diverse, filled with the world’s ethnicities, with various ideas running the spectrum of political leanings. All over Europe and America there is a rise in the far right. The conflict is not on the horizon, but now at home.
The showing of that video clip this Memorial Day in Fresno is part and parcel of the arrogance of the far right. To use Memorial Day to malign a democratically elected U.S. congresswoman is, at the very least, unpatriotic and idiocy, and at the most anti-American and a spit in the face of the thousands who have died giving their all for America and freedom.