CSotD: Memento Mori

Frazz (AMS) got it right, amid a flood of more traditional Memorial Day cartoons. We aren’t required to mourn throughout the full three days, and, as Caulfield says, it’s a weekend full of distractions as it marks the beginning of summer.

As Frazz himself observes, it still works. A lot of people will, at some point, go out to the cemetery and put flowers on the grave of a loved one, and not necessarily someone who died in battle as the holiday was originally founded to memorialize.

For my part, I’d rather the day stood alone, as Veterans Day does, after vets pushed back against melding 11/11/11 into a three-day mattress sale.

But, then, not everyone gets Veterans Day off, which demonstrates the power of business over sentiment: It would, no doubt, be observed more widely if it didn’t pop up at inconvenient times.

That’s the trouble with war, and death, and national service: It’s all so inconvenient!

“Memento Mori” — remember that thou will die — is a reminder that all is vanity and will end, but also that you should make the most of what you’ve been given.

Frazz followed that Sunday strip with today’s more compact observation, which could be the prompt for an entire seminar. We used to only lower the flag to half-staff on rare occasions, like the death of a president, and on Memorial Day, but it seems today that the upper half of a flagpole has become a vestigial organ, it is so rarely used.

And, yes, it seems we’re asked to observe moments of silence for something or other before nearly every public gathering. After a while, they lose their impact, and today is a good example.

The Civil War, the reason for this holiday, saw approximately 2.5% of the population die in battle. It’s as if 7 million were killed today, roughly seven times the toll taken by covid in the latest pandemic.

I’m a little dubious about today’s Edison Lee (KFS), because I’m not sure how many times families end up with the uniforms of their war dead.

But it is likely that Ray, who was a classmate of my older sister, brought his uniform home, because at that point, he didn’t know that the effects of Agent Orange were going to make him a victim of Vietnam in a few decades.

But he’s more likely memorialized by the three bronze stars and three Purple Hearts his mother had framed in her living room while he was still remembered in November, not yet in May.

This is not a day to pick nits, but to remember.

Juxtaposition of the Day

(Prickly City — AMS)

(Michael Ramirez — Creators)

(Ann Telnaes)

It is a day for speeches, but the degree of political criticism in those speeches should match the degree of crisis at the moment.

Wishing for an end to war seems only a slightly less empty wish than the cliche of a little boy saluting a tombstone. Ramirez combines that little boy with the equally frequent assumption that war is a necessary prelude to freedom.

Telnaes, by contrast, offers a quiet jeremiad, asking those who live to honor the price paid by those who died.

It’s far more specific than wondering where have all the flowers gone and pondering the cyclical nature of history, and assumes that freedom must be fought for in times of peace as well as in times of war.

It’s a matter of matching your message to the level of crisis you feel at the moment, and vague wishes for peace suggest contentment. Calling forth a generation of anti-fascists does not.

The holiday poses a challenge for cartoonists, but it’s a free country, so choose your own setting.

A variety of people take credit for the holiday, but I was struck by coverage of the dedication of the battlefields at Chickamauga in 1895, including the above editorial in the Chattanooga paper, taking a visiting politician to task for being too political in his speech.

Other coverage of the gathering told of veterans from both sides meeting on the once-disputed ground to shake hands and share memories, which echoes the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr — seriously wounded at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Fredericksburg — a decade earlier in the best and most famous of Memorial Day speeches, which should be required reading for anyone marking the day, and doubly so for those who do not.

Holmes was unsurprised that veterans of the war could greet each other, regardless of whether they’d worn blue or gray.

(Anders Zorn)

Holmes also acknowledged those who were not permitted to fight but who nonetheless paid a price when someone died.

Which of us has not been lifted above himself by the sight of one of those lovely, lonely women, around whom the wand of sorrow has traced its excluding circle–set apart, even when surrounded by loving friends who would fain bring back joy to their lives?

The war left a flood of young widows, often with small children and pensions that left them taking in laundry and struggling to get by, dying their clothing black because they could not afford to buy the elaborate mourning dress that custom dictated they wear.

Small wonder so many towns erected memorials and gathered on what they also called Decoration Day to place fresh wreaths and flowers on memorials, particularly since so many young men died on distant battlefields and were never found, much less brought home to lie in lovingly tendered graves.

Read Holmes’ classic speech, which will help you understand why, after his distinguished career on the Supreme Court, he wanted to be buried alongside his comrades at Arlington National Cemetery, his military service noted above his later career.

And read Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, about those at home who had to learn to deal with so much unprecedented death at such an unprecedented distance.

Or find, and stream, this American Experience documentary based on her book:

11 thoughts on “CSotD: Memento Mori

  1. OK, I give up. Name your price. Just get rid of the frigging ads.

    Nice column today.

    1. We’re working on the ads thing. Meanwhile, try another browser. It can make a major difference!

  2. I’d like Ramirez’s cartoon better (despite the cliché) if it were the child’s grandfather or great-grandfather. When is the last war the US fought to protect our own freedom? Probably World War II. We’ve fought just wars since then. Korea for example. Who could look at the two Koreas and not think the South is a hell of a lot better off thanks to the US and our Allies. The Persian Gulf War was at least against an aggressive state that invaded a neighbor. The Kosovo War probably prevented another genocide by the Serbs. And the US was certainly justified going after Bin Laden in Afghanistan. But none of them were to protect our “freedom.”

    But the rest? The Pentagon Papers killed any idea that Vietnam was for freedom. The Iraq War was a disaster for everyone. Saddam was a monster, but the Bush/Cheney administration managed to make it even worse for the average Iraqi. And then there are the interventions that range from WTF (the Dominican Republic under LBJ) to Panama and Grenada (which at least toppled an awful regime).

    This is not to disparage the average service member. I’m talking about what the policy-makers decided. When my nephew came back from Afghanistan I just hugged him and said I was happy he was home safe to us. But there are multiple reasons to fight a war, just and unjust alike and not every war was fought to protect our freedom.

    For the readers here who served in wartime, I’ll say what I told my nephew–thank you and I am glad you’re home.

    1. The Pentagon Papers should not only be required reading for would-be enlistees but go a long way in arguing for the declassification of all government documents, past and future. It is unfair for our government to make its citizens unwitting participants in global terrorism.

  3. The Ann Telnaes cartoon brought back memories of my dad. He once told me a story of when the Lee family moved into the neighborhood, moving into the house where he had been born, just a block away where I grew up. Before the Lees moved in, a neighbor brought by a petition asking Dad to sign to stop Chinese from buying property in the area. My dad told the guy that he hadn’t spent three years in Europe fighting the Nazis in order to be able to tell other people where they could or couldn’t live. Dad was pretty conservative in a lot of his viewpoints but he believed that people should be free to make their own choices, right ot wrong. Telnaes reminds us that being free includes the right to think differently than we do and just because they do doesn’t mean that they are funadmentally a bad person.

  4. Mike Royko (columnist for the Chicago Trib-may he RIP) once wrote that veterans should get Veterans day off and the rest of us should work. Kinda made sense

  5. Thanks, Mike. And double thanks for seeing a meaning in this morning’s strip that even I didn’t see when I wrote it. It’s embarrassing to say, but I wrote it implying that Caulfield, like a lot of kids, frequently gets told to pipe down. Kind of a meh gag, when you think about it a little. But when you think about it a little more, as you did, it takes on a whole new meaning, and one I’m a lot more pleased with. Even if I did come up with it accidentally, or at least deeply subconsciously.

  6. Thanks Mike for this Memorial Day collection. I had planned not to “celebrate” it this year, as too much other things are going on for me. And while the day is intended for all the KIA folks, I always had the tendency to think of my own family – which would be my Uncle, who’s jackets I inherited 30 years after his death in the skies over Australia, and my Grandmother’s Grandfather. His wife was also a victim of the war, ending up dealing with major depression with psychotic features, requiring in those days, hospitalization for decades. I then began to think of the war veterans I’ve known with PTSD and other injuries. Wars last too long, and the aftermath even longer.

    1. Idk why but every time when I see the word of momento mori I think of Markiplier and Ethan deleted channel UNUS ANNUS ?

  7. Not sure I ever put Ray’s living and his dying together quite like that before. Thanks.

  8. My father was a soldier in the 45 th ID in WWII. The night they landed on the beaches of Sicily July 10, 1943 the Luftwaffe bombers raided the invasion forces. When the bombers passed, parachutes started to appear. Every ship in the harbor opened up on the planes dropping paratroopers. Dad said he dropped his ’03 Springfield and went to his truck for a Tommy Gun. Everyone was shooting at the planes and paratroopers. Then a frantic call was passed along to cease fire. In one of the great tragedies of WWII it was discovered that the US 82nd Airborne had been scheduled for a drop that night but the communication had not gotten to the Navy or the troops on the ground. Nearly 250 highly trained paratroopers were killed and many more wounded or missing. I didn’t ask Dad if he shot anyone…he never talked about it again… What a tragic way to die for our freedom.

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