I imagine that during Memorial Day 1918 and 1919, in the midst of the swine flu pandemic that emerged from the training barracks at Fort Riley and somehow got blamed on Spain, people tried to make sense of the day and what it was supposed to symbolize and commemorate while the US was at war abroad and Americans were dying at home of communicable disease. As I wrote last year, Memorial Day has sort of evolved into a strange observance in America’s civic life and civil culture:
Memorial Day has assumed a strange place within American civic culture. It has become the Federal holiday that signals the start of summer, while at the same time, because of the changes to how Americans respond and relate to the US military, has become a de facto second Veteran’s Day. And, of course, for those that have served, or those related to them, or those who have known them as more than passing acquaintances, and those who have some civic self awareness, the holiday retains its original purpose: to commemorate America’s war dead.
All of this together is a strange civic cultural mashup.
Memorial Day 2020, and the long holiday weekend that comes with it, is even stranger than the holiday usually is. This year it has become part of the partisan, tribal attitudes and actions surrounding how Americans should be responding to SARS-CoV2 and COVID-19. We’ll know in two to three weeks just how bad the damage from this weekend’s activities is. How many who would not have become infected have become infected and how many who would not have died will have died. Further ripping at and tattering our civic culture and further poisoning the life blood of the Republic.
Eventually Americans will figure out how to recognize, commemorate, and collectively mourn those who have died as a result of COVID-19. Tens of thousands of whom would likely still be alive if the President, his senior advisors and staff, his surrogates, Senator McConnell and his Republican majority in the Senate, and Fox News, OANN, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, and the rest of conservative news, social, and digital media didn’t approach the pandemic, and the challenges it presents to the US, as some sort of partisan game to be won.
It seems strange to focus on commemorating America’s war dead when we are approaching 100,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and significant portions of the US seem to think that reality is somewhere between fake news and not their problem. America’s soul has been sick for a long time. Some of this goes back to the original sins of America’s founding. Some of the poison has been more recently injected. But the strange reality of Memorial Day 2020 makes America’s civic soul sickness brutally clear.
Rest well Michael, Nicole, Paula, Gregg, and Terry.