Memorials and Memorial Day

As I relax on this Memorial Day, as I like to do on such holidays, my thoughts are reflective and focused on those who gave their lives in defense of a concept we call liberty.  Some of my reflection is personal, relating to heroes that I have known who died in defense of our country.  Other thoughts span through those whom I am only acquainted with by way of books.  Perhaps my ideas about military service are somewhat bias due to my own service, but I still feel, in the context of the way America practices such,  military service to be the most virtuous of any profession.   I cannot present a stronger example of the dignity and virtue of the profession than the names on the memorials around our nation.

On Saturday while returning from a funeral, I stopped and spent some time at the Pennsylvania Military Museum and 28th Infantry Division Shrine.  The 28th Division, considered the Army’s oldest, was and still is primarily a National Guard formation.  As such, it is an anomaly of sorts when considered in perspective of World War II and more recent American military history.

Most of the readers of this blog are well familiar with the “volunteer” system which existed at the time of the Civil War.  In essence, it was a wartime expansion of the state militia systems, under which regiments were organized locally and mustered into Federal (or Confederate) service.  For well over 150 years that system was considered sound enough for the needs of the United States.  When ever the nation went to war, calls went out through the land for volunteers – with companies formed in towns and neighborhoods then consolidated to form regiments.  Leaders were elected or appointed by state authorities.  In the end, a unit with a sense of local identity marched off to war.

One result of this local identity is the rather common “town square” memorials.  Often with rather impressive artwork, these memorials were dedicated to the local veterans.   One might say an unofficial standard exists for the Civil War memorials, requiring a soldier standing with musket along with a listing of those from the community who died in service.  The memorials stood to preserve memory in one way or another.

Memorials of this type of course are not unique to the Civil War.  Along the eastern seaboard are memorials to the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 veterans, but mostly those were placed well after the wartime generation was gone.  The Civil War memorials were placed by comrades to those fallen men.  The same can be said for the World War I memorials.  “Doughboy” Statues stand across America as reminders of our nation’s contributions to the “War to End All Wars.”

However, taken as a group, the “town center” World War II memorials tend to offer less from the artistic standpoint.  The sentiment is there, but very few offer impressive statues.  Often these are incorporated with displays outside a Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion hall.  Many cultural historians have noted this shift in the memorials, and offered suggestions.  My personal belief is that under the mobilization system of World War II, that “localization” of the unit was watered down.  Yes, there were units like the 28th Infantry that marched off to war as mobilized National Guardsmen.  But the replacement system, reorganizations from the square to triangle division, and other factors changed the character of the unit by the end of the war.  So by 1945, as the soldiers returned, there was no longer a sense of community involvement as with the previous wars.  (I would add that the “greatest generation,” with much modesty, has been more active with national level with memorials, museums, monuments, and static displays of military equipment. )

In the conflicts our nation has fought since 1945, our fighting formations were largely built around skeleton active duty “regular” units.  I recall that in Korea some National Guard divisions were deployed, but by the time they entered combat, the officers and staff were largely transferred into the formations from other active duty posts.  Guard units were shuffled around with volunteer and draftees added to their rosters.  There were a lot of valid reasons for this practice, not the least of which were criticisms of politically connected leader appointments in the guard.  Regardless of the reasons, one effect was to remove that sense of “localization.”  Veterans of the Korean War, who lived side by side in the community, might never have seen each other during the war.

In my generation, that sense of localization was completely gone.  Even with National Guard and Reserve augmentees, the conflicts were so short in duration that units rarely had the time to cement that bond.  Most units in action were active duty formations, in which we simply had more attachment to the base deployed from than to any home town.  We served, but we didn’t form those community wide bonds of the veterans like other generations.  Heck, I served on a couple of deployments with a fellow bloger listed on my blogroll to the right.  Yet had he and I not swapped some war stories, we’d have never recalled our common service!

However, that sense of localization among the veterans might come back in the near future.  Three factors, in my opinion, may revive it.  First, somewhat counter-intuitive in a way, is the geographical distribution of those who have served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  Two years ago a news item pointed out several major US cities had not experienced a war death.  That is a good statistic, if you are a soldier from those cities, of course.  But underlying that statistic, the news item further expanded – there were several US localities that could not claim a single service member in arms.  In our all-volunteer service, geographically speaking there are some localities where individuals answer the call in larger numbers than average.

A second factor is the extensive use of the National Guard and Reserves in the current wars for extended periods of time.  Several units have rotated through the combat zone multiple times now, each tour lasting a year or more.  As such, those units return with that “localization” experienced by their predecessors in the Civil War and World War I.  An example of that stands at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s Fallen Warrior Memorial.

Lastly, and I must say perhaps I am not as involved here as I should be, there is a sense of awareness and purposefulness among returning veterans that the nation has not seen for many decades.  Case and point, just look at the number and nature of the MilBloggers out there today.  These folks don’t want the nation to forget!

Maybe it is just wishful thinking on my part, but I do believe that there will soon be new additions to the town centers around the country.  Likewise, as the veterans of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam made impacts in the course of our nation, I honestly believe the current generation will also.