‘Never Trumpet War as Glorious’: The History of Memorial Day

In our country’s early years, women generally played the helpmeet role in war, as they did in the home, nursing the wounded, cooking for the troops, sewing uniforms, purchasing supplies, and tending graves. For their supportive roles during the Revolutionary War, they earned recognition from none other than General George Washington, who wrote, in 1781: “Amidst the distress and sufferings of the Army, whatever sources they have arisen, it must be a consolation to our Virtuous Country Women that they have never been accused of withholding their most zealous efforts to support the cause we are engaged in.”

In each of the wars that preceded the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, some women nevertheless managed to join the fighting forces. Deborah Sampson was the first to serve as a soldier in the American army, donning men’s clothing and enlisting under the name Robert Shurtliff in 1782. Hundreds of women are thought to have followed a similar path and fought as men in all the wars that have occurred on North American soil, while thousands more served openly in nursing corps and administrative positions. By the time of the first Gulf War (1990–91), women were a committed and accepted presence in the armed forces. More than 40,000 servicewomen were deployed during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm; 16 were killed.

Memorial Day is a time for us to remember that war historically presents soldiers with a special kind of equal opportunity: to die. Unlike Veterans’ Day, which honors all service members, Memorial Day is for remembering the dead. It began as a way to specifically recall the carnage of the Civil War, in which combat deaths totaled approximately 110,000 on the Union side and 94,000 on the Confederate. After World War I (53,402 American combat deaths), the scope of Memorial Day was expanded to honor the dead of all wars. The numbers piled on throughout the 20th century: World War II (291,557 American combat deaths), Korea (33,686), Vietnam (47,424), first Gulf War (149), Afghanistan (3,509), Iraq (4,806).

On Memorial Day we gather to honor and pay our respects to the men and women, mostly very young, who have lost their lives to the violence of war. We are meant to appreciate their sacrifice, made for the nation as a whole. It’s a good day for reading the speech President Barack Obama made upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2009, and reflecting on his outline for maintaining peace, and on these words:

The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.


RELATED: “Memorial Day: Remembering, and Taking Responsibility”

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  • Marc Charnow June 5, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Objections to women in combat typically relate to questioning their physical readiness, but often reveal another prejudice — that “ladies shouldn’t have to see the horrors of war.” That war is a dark, horrific side of humanity only to be witnessed by men of hardy constitution. Allowing women to choose to battle is really about Pro Choice, personal freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny, which, ironically, are often the very principles that wars are fought to secure. I would just add that in terms of witnessing the horrors of war, thousands of women served as nurses in the Civil War. They were not dressing knee scrapes and surface wounds. It was as gruesome as it gets.

    Thanks for a great essay, Amy.

  • Stephen Brewer June 2, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Your fact-filled essay is thought-provoking. While we do think of Memorial Day as the start of summer, the holiday’s real purpose is not entirely forgotten. To me the day is the equivalent of those memorials you come across in every French village, filled with names and inscribed “Mort pour la France.” They seem a bit out of context today but are stark reminders of sacrifice. I was jolted into a new reality when I met a beautiful young woman at a party who told me she’d been in Afghanistan for two years. Being thick, I asked her if she worked for a relief agency and she nicely explained that she was an Army captain in command of a combat unit.

  • Esther Rosenfeld June 1, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Very fact filled, and left me wondering about what kind of feminist I am. I shudder at the idea of my granddaughters being conscripted.
    But your point about honoring the dead on Memorial Day is right on!
    I agree with what Michelle wrote – need to develop conscienceless about this early on. Certainly got me thinking.

  • Olly June 1, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Wonderful article, Amy!

  • Michelle Hughes June 1, 2016 at 8:04 am

    An excellent article with a unique angle on Memorial Day. Teachers addressing the topics of the Civil War and women’s rights should include this in their class readings. We did!