Our next to last art class before summer break was right before Memorial Day. I had my last cataract surgery on the Tuesday before, so Mike gave me a lift into class. I wasn’t quite ready to drive yet. I thought we’d be finishing the work we began last week, but that wasn’t on the program for the class. Time for an audible.
John Wesley wanted his clergy to be always ready at a moment’s notice to “pray, preach, move, or die.” We art teachers have always been able to think on our feet and pull a project out of thin air. High school debate team extemporaneous speaking events are excellent trading grounds for this life skill.
Memorial Day is one of the official days for displaying the American flag. Arkansas Flag & Banner has an informative paragraph (6d) at the link below on the days to display the flag if you aren’t flying it daily. The origins of Memorial Day are shrouded in mystery, since at least 25 sites claim to be the first to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. From Columbus, MS, on April 25, 1866, to Boalsburg, PA, in 1864, cities north and south claim the fame of being first to decorate soldiers’ graves.
On May 5, 1866, Waterloo, NY, held a ceremony to honor local veterans who fought in the Great War. Businesses closed and citizens flew their flags at half staff. Other sites were not citywide or were one time events. As a result, in 1966, Congress declared Waterlo, NY, the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”
The Civil War took the lives of 750,000 men, not counting those who lost limbs or minds as casualties of the war, according to J. David Hacker, a demographic historian at Binghamton University, who has raised the estimate of how many deaths there were in the American Civil War from just under 620,000. One of every four soldiers failed to return home. If this devastating war took place today, 7.5 million people would have died in the fighting. As a reminder, the scourge of COVID-19 has killed 1,123,836 people in the United States alone since 2019.
Of course, as our ability to preserve life improves, our reverence for life increases. We just disagree at which point in time life should be honored and respected, and which lives are worth honoring and respecting. Perhaps we’re just a people given to disagreement and division by nature, or our old wounds from this ancient conflict continue to fester and boil, so we pick new battles to fight with words, rather than blows.
America lost 1,190,085 total service members’ lives from 1775 to 1991. The ongoing Global War on Terror has yet to be accounted because it isn’t finished. Although they underestimated the number of Civil War casualties, this one home grown conflict was responsible for about half of the war deaths of all American service members. It was a cruel war, in a brutal age. Things we take for granted today—dog tags for identification, mobile army surgery hospitals, anesthesia, sanitary camp conditions, humane treatment of prisoners, nutrious rations, and other civilized practices—weren’t part of the Civil War experience. In the American Civil War, twice as many soldiers died of disease as from hostile action.
World War II was the first war to have more deaths caused from the battlefield than from other causes. Greatly improved public health in armies has lowered the toll of disease to a fraction of what it was in earlier centuries. Modern military medicine has now allowed larger and larger armies. In short, military medicine, while greatly improving the care of the individual soldier, has enabled nations to have bigger armies and greater wars. We see the unfortunate consequences of these improvements in the current aggressive Russian attempt to takeover an independent Ukrainian democratic state against its people’s will.
After several years together in our art class, Gail and Mike are both now open to making an artwork that presents an idea or an emotion, more than a representation of a form. Not everything has to be a photorealistic rendering of an object before us. We do this often enough to build our skills of seeing and drawing, but we also need to build our expressive skills also. As an example in the spiritual life, we can spend our days in intercessory prayer, but we also participate in contemplative prayer or meditation to exercise the less analytical ways we can meet God in prayer.
Mike went on vacation recently and had the opportunity to take an art class with a different instructor. He suggested Mike give up his dedication to the small brush, a comment I often make. Now he’s excited about the freedom of the large brush and is exploring this new tool and technique.
Gail mixed the reds and blues to make violet, as if the colors of the flag were washing into to one another. Many artists have changed the colors of the flag, but kept the design, or they kept the colors and destroyed the design. This is artistic license or creative interpretation. We make our statements with our images. She also changed the stars into circles by using a sponge to put down the paint. It was a good day for experimenting.
I came home to finish up my painting with memories of visiting Civil War battlefields on my mind. I thought of those ancient days when families were able to identify their loved ones only by the special knit patterns of the socks on the bodies, or by the last letters to relatives pinned into their shirts. The Gold Star Mothers began during World War I when the mothers of fallen servicemen united to share their grief. By 1928, it was an official organization and the bereaved families were recognized with a pin.
When I lived in San Antonio, I ocassionally visited the various military hospitals in town. There I saw the photos of the Medal of Honor recipients and read the summaries of their noble deeds. I always renewed my dedication to my less dangerous occupation afterward. Those who serve are a different breed from an ordinary person such as I. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best in his 1863 Gettysburg Address:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Amanda Gorman’s excellent 2021 inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” has a section which echoes the sentiments of the post Civil War era, when Memorial Day celebrations first began:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promised glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare.
On this Memorial Day, over 150 years later, the wheels of justice are setting the sentences for the insurrectionists who attempted to impede the peaceful transfer of power to the newly elected government of the United States. We do well to remember the prescient words of Frederick Douglass, who said at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1871:
“We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers.”
At 3:00 pm on Memorial Day, let’s pause for a moment and remember those who sacrificed body, mind, or life to keep our nation free, or to bring freedom to a nation that so desperately yearns for it.
Joy and Peace, and thanks to those who keep it for us,
United States, US Flag Code | FlagandBanner.com
The Origins of Memorial Day—US Department of Veterans Affairs
Professor: Civil War Death Toll May Be Really Off : NPR
United States – COVID-19 Overview – Johns Hopkins
Veterans Affairs Fact Sheet America’s Wars 2019
War, Medicine & Death – PMC
Gettysburg address delivered at Gettysburg Pa. Nov. 19th, 1863.| Library of Congress