Decoration Day, which became Memorial Day, spontaneously began during the American Civil War – a war fought mostly by conscripts – as a day set aside to tend and decorate the graves of that war’s dead. By 1867 Memorial Day had its own poignant hymn, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping.” And, the next year General John Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic – which was probably the largest veterans organization in history – asked his members to decorate the graves of both Union and Confederate dead at Arlington National Cemetery.
The day to tend the memorials was observed on different dates from state to state under slightly different names. There was a pronounced disagreement about the holiday between the North and the South. To this day most of the states in the old Confederacy have a separate day to honor their Confederate dead. Texas remembers in January. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi remember in April. Louisiana and Tennessee honor their Confederate dead on Jefferson Davis’ birthday in June.
Memorial Day became a national holiday and the culmination of a three day weekend in 1971, two years before the United States pulled combat troops out of Vietnam and four years before that war’s brutal and tragic finale. The motorcycle ride called Rolling Thunder began a dozen years after that, which was five years after the dedication of a black chevron carved into a corner of the National Mall. The half buried chevron is officially called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Most Vietnam veterans simply call it “The Wall.”
The Wall was controversial from the start for all the reasons anything can be controversial in a narcissistic society obsessed with its reflection in the fun house mirrors of the mass media. Three veterans named Ray Manzo, John Holland and Walt Sides rode their motorcycles to The Wall for Memorial Day in 1987 with the same intentions the first celebrants of Decoration Day had.
At the time, the Vietnam War and the men who had fought for America there were still the punch lines of many bitter jokes. (How many Vietnam Vets does it take to screw in a light bulb? Pause. You can’t know man! You can’t know! You weren’t there! Ha! Ha! Ha!)
The Wall had been defaced. Many veterans thought The Wall needed protecting, tending and appreciation and in 1988 Manzo, Holland, Sides and a Vietnam veteran named Artie Muller returned with about 2,000 of their dirty and dangerous biker friends. They came, as a biker from Pittsburgh named Robert Wagner told a reporter that day, as “a show of strength.”
Mueller went on to make a career out of the final leg of the Run To The Wall, which is called “Rolling Thunder.” He is good at what he does. This year some uncounted number of motorcycles, maybe as many as 750,000, rode from Arlington, Virginia to The Wall.
Mueller is now 67 and most of the original meaning of Rolling Thunder has been submerged under a rising tide of phony patriotism. As the Civil War was the first war fought mostly by men who had no choice in the matter, Vietnam was the last war fought mostly by conscripts. Congress ended the draft in 1973 and the gulf between soldier and citizen has been widening ever since. Twelve percent of the nation was in uniform in World War II. About one half of a percent wears a uniform today. When the draft ended, 70 percent of Congress had worn a uniform. Today, fewer than 20 percent of Congress has gone through Basic Combat Training. As a result, most of the people responsible for America’s current string of low intensity and micro wars judge them dispassionately – as Adolph Eichmann was dispassionate about the blood on his hands.
As recently as the turn of the millennium, most Americans understood that Rolling Thunder had some valid connection to Vietnam and the profound alienation of many of that war’s veterans from bourgeois America. The best way to repeat history’s mistakes, an old saw claimed, is to forget about them. Even a decade ago, America was not ready to forget. Mueller and his coterie were welcome guests in the George W. Bush White House because, whatever his other deficiencies, Bush at least had the decency to be ashamed for what he did and did not do during Vietnam.
President Obama, on the other hand, is he among us who is without shame. He thinks Vietnam was a movie and he is a shameless supporter of the professional military. He has an accountant’s view of America’s wars. He is an obviously self-satisfied and hollow man who seems personally unacquainted with rage, shock, violence and blood. And, he has given Rolling Thunder and Artie Mueller the cold shoulder for his entire term. That was the case again this year. He seems to think Mueller has nothing to teach him.
Mueller still remembers how Rolling Thunder started. In an interview with the Washington Times last week, Mueller said, “Everything about this rally still affects me, no matter how many years we’ve been doing it. And everything we do is meant to remember and honor our POWs, MIAs and all of our veterans. I lost a whole lot of guys in that war. I never forget that I made it back but they didn’t.”
Presently, most Americans are convinced that wars should be subcontracted to professionals rather than fought by their sons and fellow citizens as a common cause. So it is not surprising that Memorial Day is now conflated with Veteran’s Day and Independence Day. And, the old veterans’ show of strength is increasingly regarded as a public nuisance. Rolling Thunder got significantly less play from the top, national news outlets this morning than the big car race in Indianapolis,
And many Washington area residents are frank about their contempt for the event.
“Yes, I’ll take the day away from my orthodontics practice, pull on my leathers, skip shaving for a day for that ‘tough’ look, and disrupt traffic all over the region with a bunch of accountants and middle managers riding overpriced loud scooters for morons,” a poster commented last week on Fairfax Underground, a community news site and bulletin board in Suburban Virginia.
“The only thing dumber than the tards riding their noisy little bikes and fucking up traffic are the tards who camp out by the side of the road in lawn chairs to watch them all go by. Who the fuck has never seen a motorcycle before, and wants to stand around for hours watching a bunch of organ donors putt-putt by on their loud attention-whore-mobiles,” another suburbanite commented.
Another said: “Wow, it’s time for Monkeyfest 2013 already? Time flies! Get ready for the parade of hairy, greasy, stinky, disgusting, fat-ass ‘riders’ clogging up the roads to fill their endless cravings for attention.”
And another: “Why do they continue to have this? How many years has this been going on? What have they accomplished? I have nothing against a bunch of old guys trying to be cool for a weekend, but what’s the point? If they are trying to change things it ain’t working!”
In response the Mueller’s persistent argument that his rally raises awareness of soldiers being held prisoner and those missing in action a sarcastic commenter said: “Don’t you guys get it? Rolling Douchery is all about the MIAs and POWs. It has nothing to do with ‘riders’ wanting attention. Not at all. This has been going on for 25 years, and so far Rolling Douchery has been responsible for approximately zero (give or take zero) recovered MIAs and POWs. So it’s a huge success, and will undoubtedly continue to be so – because it’s all about the MIAs and POWs.”
A commenter on a Washington blog called POPville wrote: “I hate Rolling Thunder (a big party to show off bikes disguised as concern) so much that I go on vacation around Memorial Day.” Which is what President Obama does.
And another wrote: “Gathering in one place to show respect for those who served their country is thoughtful. Gathering across a huge swath of territory on intentionally loud noisemaking machines that disrupt other people’s lives is just a selfish festival. It’s analogous to going out to throw up in public on St. Patrick’s Day.”
The President was back in Washington this morning in time to laud the newly professionalized military. After laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier this morning, he delivered his annual Memorial Day speech. It wasn’t exactly The Gettysburg Address.
In his remarks the President praised the “one percent of the American people (who) bear the burden of our defense” but he did not question that perverse statistic. He called the volunteers “heroes, each and every one. They gave America the most precious thing they had, the last full measure of devotion. And because they did, we are who we are today: a free and prosperous nation, the greatest in the world.”
He continued, “They risk their lives, and many give their lives, for something larger than themselves or any of us: The ideals of liberty and justice that make America a beacon of hope for the world. That’s been true throughout our history – from our earliest days, when a tiny band of revolutionaries stood up to an empire, to our 9/11 generation, which continues to serve and sacrifice today.”
“Over the last decade, we’ve seen the character of our country again,” the President boasted.
Obama is so calculating that it is often hard to know what he is talking about. The war in Afghanistan, which “is larger than…any of us,” is after all his war. And, it is clearly Congress’ war. And so are all the micro-wars in places like Yemen, the Sudan, the Phillipines and Columbia. So it is difficult to tell whether Obama is a liar on the subject of war or simply blind to it. Neither of those possibilities is comforting.
An obvious example of this fatuousness or mendacity broke into the news last September when Marines in Afghanistan were widely described as “inhuman” for urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. All combat veterans, and virtually every man who has lived in the last 200,000 years, would have found the conduct of those Marines to be completely human. The President, who is fussy about pronouncing “Taliban” forgot how to pronounce “Marines.” But other members of his administration and party did speak about the incident. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who served in the peacetime Army before Vietnam, called the Marines “utterly despicable.”
And Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, also condemned the Marines for not fighting her war correctly. The same week a Marine Staff Sergeant was being court-martialed for “desecration of human remains,” “posing for unofficial photographs with human casualties,” “failing to properly supervise junior Marines” and not reporting misconduct, Shultz said this on Bill Maher’s show on HBO: “Let’s remember that this is the United States of America. The greatest country in the world that is the country that we hold ourselves up as a shining example. That conduct, and I represent a lot of wonderful 18-year-old kids in the Twentieth District in South Florida, and I wouldn’t expect that conduct out of any of them no matter what their level of maturity is and it’s unacceptable in any way shape or form.”
After Wasserman Shultz self-righteous and self-serving little speech, the in-studio audience, which might not have contained a single combat veteran, enthusiastically cheered.
Next year Obama should set aside a couple hours for a little chat with Artie Mueller about war. He might learn something. Wasserman Schultz should sit in on that meeting, too.