On Memorial Day

“Monday Musings” for Monday May 25, 2015

Volume V. No. 21/229

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Memorial Day, Pericles, Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Today is Memorial Day. Some reflections:

In so many great books and in so many great bodies of literature, we are told that “to die for one’s own country is the noblest deed.” The conceptual architectonics of this notion goes back to 5th century BC Athens and to mid-nineteen century AD America. The architects are two superb statesmen, Pericles of Athens and Abraham Lincoln of America separated by almost 2500 years. The occasion was the funeral oration by Pericles for the war dead in Athens 404 BC, and the funeral oration by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1865 AD for the America’s civil war dead.B oth speeches proclaim that democracy is worth sacrificing lives and spending the nation’s financial and material resources. In their speeches, Pericles and Lincoln forcefully and eloquently submit that “to die for the cause of democracy and national unity is the noblest act.”

Pericles and Lincoln, these two incomparable souls had qualities that set them apart as statesmen. They were not merely politicians. They both had bedrock principles and solid foundation of beliefs that did not change with public polls and political expedience. They both had a moral compass and had a sense of absolute right and wrong. They each had a vision for their nation as a model for the world and humankind, and they had the ability to build consensus. Pericles and Lincoln both led their respective nations, Greece and America, into civil wars. Pericles led his nation to war between Sparta and Athens (431 to 404 BC), and Lincoln led America to our Civil War (1861 to 1865). The Athenians and Spartans spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods. So did the Confederate soldiers and their brethren to the north. They spoke English (or according to H. L. Menken they all spoke ‘American’) and worshipped the same God. As an aside: you will enjoy reading H.L. Menken’s “American Language” which gives a deep analysis contrasting British English with American English.

The Origin of Memorial Day

The journey starts with Pericles and his funeral oration of 404 BC. Later Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC to 19 BC to ), usually called Virgil or Vergil in English, the celebrated Roman poet in his famous epic poem in Latin, Aeneid, translated the words of Pericles from Greek to Latin. Lincoln, an intellectual and scholar, had read Aeneid as much as he had read the Bible. Aeneid is a poem about war. It spells out the conduct and the protocol of man at war. Virgil came to the conclusion that men who gave their lives to their country should be memorialized. Virgil popularized Pericles’ of views some 400 years earlier, laying down the roots of what we today know as Memorial Day.

Lincoln used Virgil’s concept of memorializing the dead soldiers. He also emulated Pericles who with unparalleled eloquence and clarity concluded that “to die for one’s nation is the noblest deed”. Almost 2500 years after Pericles, Abraham Lincoln, on November 19, 1863 in his funeral oration in 272 words Gettysburg Address told the nation why the war, where he was going with the war, and what the outcome of the war would be. He clearly articulated why 620,000 soldiers have given their lives. He told the nation that the ultimate goal was to ensure the unity of the nation and guarantee freedom for all Americans.

The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s marvelous use of words loaded with religious and Biblical symbolisms such as “fourscore, dedicate, consecrate, hallow, and sacred ground” invoked the spiritual dimensions of his persuasive message. And Lincoln did not have a team of speech writers and spin artist pollsters on his staff… In contrast, it is unclear to us why the ill-defined Iraq and Afghanistan wars now going on 14 years, at a cost of thousands of lives, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions dollars, continue. America is still waiting for an explanation of why we are there. Would not it be nice if we had a living Lincoln who could use 272 words to give us this reason?

Memorial Day as we know it today, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. Memorial Day was born out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. Memorial Day is now observed in almost every state on the last Monday in May with Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971. This helped ensure a three day weekend for this Federal holiday, though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead.

Salute to the veterans for the noble act of sacrificing for America and condolences to their families of the deceased.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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