It’s Memorial Day tomorrow, and I want to stop for a moment and remember. We are all the children of survivors of some sort… and we often remember them. But the ones who died? The ones who never returned to have children or the lives they must have longed for? They are the ones Memorial Day is for. My great-grandfather, who destroyed his bowels in 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley; my grandfather, who lost a leg a week before the Armistice in 1918; my other grandfather, who cringed at high sounds the rest of his life after serving as an artilleryman in France in 1918; my ex-father-in-law, who lost an arm to a Japanese shell on the beach at Iwo Jima in 1945—while he was going to fetch water; my father, whose experiences on Leyte Island in 1944 turned him into a life-long pacifist… these were among the lucky. They came home.
Late last week, I found new information about another ancestor, my great-great-grandfather Joel Dimmette. I have long had copies of a release for Joel Dimett from the prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Md. What I don’t know is how he got there.
What I discovered is that he had served in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry regiment, Company F. I am pretty sure that the man who served in that unit was, in fact, my Joel Dimmette, for the name is unusual, the regiment was raised (in part) from his home county (Wilkes), and two other members of his company (at least) bore names common to the county—leading me to think that the company was raised there.
The 52nd served under General Pettigrew at Gettysburg. It participated in what is now generally called “Pickett’s Charge.” Quite likely, Dimett was captured at that time and served the next two years of the war as a POW. Actually, I have since discovered (I am writing this in August, 2009 as an update), my great-great-grandfather wasn’t yet serving at the time of Gettysburg. He joined the 52nd in the fall of 1864 and was captured the next spring, on April 2, 1865, during the Union breakout at Petersburg, one of a vast number of Confederate soldiers taken during a day that, it could be argued, sealed the fate of the Confederacy.
What’s that got to do with Memorial Day? After all, Dimett was fighting against the United States, not for it. And he, too, came home.
It’s got just this to do with Memorial Day: the losers, too, deserve our respect. Joel Dimmette came from the mountains. He was not a rich man, and served as a private. He owned no slaves. He fought for North Carolina, and fought (I am sure) because it was expected of him, like soldiers before and since. I have a picture of him, a photocopy, a severe looking bearded man next to his pleasant-looking wife. Nothing special, just a man who had made it home. One of the lucky ones.
Only some sixty men and a handful of officers remained with the 52nd at the end of the war. The rest? Some were dead, others wounded, and still more (like Dimett) prisoners-of-war. A Civil War regiment could contain as many as 1500 men, generally at least a thousand. Perhaps a thousand men of the 52nd were casualties of war or taken as prisoners, spending two years living in tents in Maryland (as Dimett likely did).
Those men deserve memorial, too. Especially the ones who died, the ones who never made it home.
War, all war, any war, is failure. War starts from failure. The people who fight, however, are not generally those who failed—those mostly sit safely behind. The ones who die aren’t those who created loathsome ideologies or couldn’t control their lusts for power. Nor are they particularly those who opposed the “bastards” most vociferously. No, they are simply people willing to defend their land, however that may be defined. All of them, even from the losing sides, deserve memorial.
And then there’s that door.
When I returned to Brooklyn today from my house in Pennsylvania, I found that someone had shot my Brooklyn door. Not only that, but a nice bicycle had been demolished and strung up on the fence beside the door. Now, George Bush has done his best to hide the effects of this current occupation and the war that led to it from the American people. Telling us to go shopping, to continue with our lives, sneaking flag-draped coffins into Delaware at night so that we won’t even have to honor the fallen. But the effects will show, and maybe they are beginning to.
One of the fallouts of a protracted, unwinnable was is unrest at home. Money that could have been spent on social programs, that could have been used to help the domestic economy, that could have been making all of our lives better, goes down the drain.
It used to be that there were gunshots daily in my Brooklyn neighborhood. And no one dared ride around on a fine bicycle. But things got better. Our society started to get richer and more Americans saw places for themselves within the system.
Now, as a result of this occupation (and other policies of the present administration), we may be losing our confidence, returning to days of sullenness, of anger.
I hope not.
Tomorrow, on Memorial Day, let’s remember all of the fallen, not just those on “our” side or the “winning” side. And let’s remember the destructive nature of war (and of occupation of a foreign land), even on a homeland far away.
Let’s memorialize the fallen by making the death stop, by refusing to support the occupation of Iraq. Let’s memorialize them by getting back to the business of making the United States the best possible place to live, a place where bullet holes don’t show up in doors and prized bicycles don’t become the focus of someone’s undirected anger.
Let’s memorialize the fallen by creating a society they could be proud to have died for—even if, in fact, they died for another.