In the book trailer above, author Dale Maharidge talks about the mercurial father he loved, and his 14-year journey to understand that father’s experiences during World War II.
“What are you doing for Memorial Day weekend?” Many, if not most, of us answer that question by describing our holiday plans: the beach, the picnic, the not-t0-be missed (handbag/shoe/appliance) sale. A few might carve out time to watch some observances of the holiday, whether a local parade or TV coverage from Arlington National Cemetery. For many on one side of the country’s military-civilian divide, none of that remembering takes much time away from a well-deserved day off. But should it?
This day was originally called Decoration Day, as I wrote here at WVFC two years ago: “’Decoration,’ the act of placing medals, ribbons, flowers on graves, comes from the holiday’s beginnings at the end of the Civil War, when almost everyone had lost someone they loved.” I called the new Memorial Day term “an effort to increase [the holiday's] mass appeal, the first step perhaps to now, when we might as well call it Barbecue Day.” But what’s more true is that the very term memorial ought to compel us to remember.
Those war dead, before, during and after the Civil War, were and are ours. Some were in our families. And for some of us, we need to observe Decoration Day in all its original complexity—by looking at the wars they fought as clearly as we can.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dale Maharidge decided to do that after the 2000 death of his father, who’d fought in the Asian campaign for the duration of World War II. He found and interviewed as many of his father’s surviving Marine Corps peers as he could, a sometimes-painful process that took almost 14 years. In the process, Maharidge says, he learned more about the complexity of World War II than most of our national tributes to the “Good War” acknowledge.
In response to one of those tributes—Ken Burns’s important documentary series The War—WVFC publisher Patricia Yarberry Allen wrote “The Father Who Came Home from WW II “ a few Father’s Days ago. The film had made her better understand her father, a veteran of the brutal Anzio campaign. “He married my mother, a red-headed school teacher whose beat was the one-room schoolhouse, bought a farm and probably did his best to just get back to normal. But the man he had been before the war was left buried there. The man who came home was a shell filled with nightmares, intolerance to loud noises, and certainly filled with anger aimed at those in power and at anyone who defied him.”
I thought of Dr. Allen’s wonderfully evocative article when I picked up Bringing Mulligan Home. (Full disclosure: Maharidge was also a key teacher of mine at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism years ago. But like his recently deceased father, he never talked about that war or this project. I had no idea how remarkable it would be.) Like Dr. Allen, as a child Maharidge was bewildered by a mercurial father who never wanted to talk about the war. But by the time Steve Maharidge died, his son had a few more clues about his father’s story than Allen learned about her father’s experience of war. He had a flag covered with names, a story about a pivotal incident during the Battle of Okinawa, and some intriguing photos of Herman Mulligan, whose body was never recovered after he died on that crucial day.
Maharidge’s investigative skills and ferocious talent have yielded a text that is equal parts memoir, oral history, detective story, and searing narrative of some of the darker sides of war. After spending hours, weeks, days talking to 29 members of Love Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marines, Sixth Marine Division, Maharidge chooses 12 for us to get to know. Steve Maharidge’s battles emerge in these veterans’ memories, as does America’s story in the way their wartime experiences shaped their lives. By the end, some of the “mystery” around Mulligan’s death is simultaneously dispelled and deepened, and Maharidge feels closer to his father than he ever had before.
The investigation also touched on many aspects of Americans’ conduct of the war in Asia, including racism, abuse of Japanese civilians, and deep questions about decisionmaking by some of the most famous U.S. generals. (Maharidge discussed those aspects at a recent Columbia University panel broadcast yesterday on C-SPAN’s Book TV.) But in Maharidge’s book, Mulligan’s story is well anchored by the stories of those 12 Marines, the families we get to know along the way, and the ghost-voice of the author’s father. And the book’s complexity of vision honors their sacrifice with honesty as well as love.
I think I’ve changed my mind: Memorial Day is a better term than Decoration Day. The latter term derives from decorum, and means “to put prettiness on sadness.” Memorial, which derives from Old French, means ”mindful of, remembering,” a near-verb that is also a commitment. On behalf of those who lost their lives, engaging in memory is literally the very least we can do.