There goes my hero / Watch him as he goes / There goes my hero / He’s ordinary — “My Hero,” written by Dave Grohl, Nate Mendel and Pat Smear, 1995.
Memorial Day, which we celebrate today because usually more gasoline is sold over three-day weekends, was still called Decoration Day when I was a child. It didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971, even though Decoration Day became a thing after the first U.S. Civil War. According to History.com, one of the earliest Memorial Day remembrances was organized by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.
In recent years, the definition of Memorial Day has grown to include all of those whose lives were sacrificed for the greater good. Today, we tend to call these people “heroes” and that would be okay had our definition of hero not been allowed to expand to those who do what all humans are supposed to do: help out those in need. That’s where I get a bit cynical. I’ll go along with the hero thing as long as we come up with an equally descriptive term for those who could but maliciously refuse to help out those in need.
I think you know the people I’m talking about.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran the front page I reproduced above. The story, of course, was continued on interior pages but I’m sure you get the point. This was one of the most appropriate front pages I’ve seen, and I’m the type of history freak that reads old newspapers for fun. I rarely go out of my way to praise the NYT, but fair is fair. It would take the effort of a much better writer than I to make the point any sharper.
Yesterday, I had an online conversation with a friend who is a veteran of our recent middle eastern activities, who, by the way, was wounded in the war. I don’t think he is a hero for having been wounded. I think he’s a hero for having been there in the first place.
Be that as it may, we discussed the Times’ use of the word “incalculable.” Obviously, if there’s a list, the number is calculable. That’s true, but I don’t think that was the point. I said it was the loss itself that was incalculable and not simply the number who have died thus far. For every name listed, there are an incalculable number of people who are severely impacted: friends, co-workers, family, online correspondents, vendors dependent upon their business, brothers and sisters in arms, teachers, nurses and physicians and others who have been there in your support system for years, and so on. The impact is truly overwhelming, particularly as it’s all been within the past ten weeks or so.
His initial thought was significant: we should be specific in our rhetoric. Damn near everybody has suffered a loss in this pandemic, and most of those who haven’t probably will before it’s all over. We bitch about our inconveniences, but we are still here to complain. In no way does that make the rest of us heroes. We are survivors, and we should be proud of that. Or, at the very least, appreciative.
We are living through a history we will tell our grandchildren about. My maternal grandfather died of the Spanish influenza that followed World War I, when my mother was about three years old. It took me quite a while to piece together that story. Today, history is no longer written by the winners — history is written every moment of every day, in print and online, with audio and video to flesh out the static pictures and provide a more accurate view, in the aggregate, for future generations.
I am fond of quoting philosopher George Santayana’s well-known aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I say “well-known,” but I remain amazed by how often I read the words of people in power who simply do not get that. I can’t understand why. Maybe power tends to erode reason.
Maybe it’s more the quest for power that erodes reason, particularly when that power is defined by money.
Yesterday, the New York Times made Memorial Day all the more memorable. Maybe we can’t avoid such disaster, but there is a great, great deal we can do to minimize the damage.
True to the present name for this holiday, we must never forget.