Today, my 14-year old played in the band for a Bluffton Memorial Day service and there was broad community attendance despite rainy weather and a last-minute change in venue. Bluffton Ohio has strong civic engagement and this is easier in small towns but I imagine that many communities also get widespread community support of Memorial Day events to honor military service. It was more about honoring the military than remembering the dead and seemed a bit redundant with veterans day. Originally Memorial Day was about remembering soldiers killed in the Civil war, and later expanded to other wars, but other veterans’ deaths were remembered and I’m not sure if any soldier named in the ceremony had actually died in combat.
I expect that these kinds of events will decline as the current generation dies out because there has been a generational shift since the Vietnam war in attitudes towards military service. Before Vietnam, military service was required of all young males in wartime due to the draft. Of course, the draft existed during Vietnam too, but it has already begun to break down during that war. Upper-class youth could more easily get deferments by going to college and because the baby boom produced lots of eligible soldiers, only about a quarter of Vietnam combat troops were draftees (compared to 66% during World War II). And there were about three times as many Americans below the median income in combat in Vietnam as above the median. Americans with connections and ambition like Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton got multiple draft deferrals and others like George W Bush were assigned to cushy National Guard placements with no danger of any combat.
According to AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service, the military was once a popular destination for elite families. The draft was initiated in WWI because political leaders were worried that too many of the nation’s elites would volunteer to enlist. “In 1956, 400 out of 750 in Princeton’s graduating class went into the military. In contrast, in 2004, 9 members of Princeton’s graduating class entered the services.”
In Bluffton, I was struck by how many community leaders had been in the military before Vietnam and how few veterans who were younger than Vietnam were community leaders involved in the Memorial Day service. As the military becomes more and more of an institution for people below the median income, it will have fewer community leaders and there will be less organizational power to produce Memorial Day services. There were younger community leaders there, but they were involved in the Boy Scouts or with the school.
Socioeconomic class is important. One of the reasons that fads come and go is that upper-class people adopt new fashions to signal how cool they are. But any fashion that can be copied by lower-class people will get less fashionable over time as the upper-class move to a new signal of their coolness to distinguish themselves from the common classes. Freakonomics says this is the reason that baby names get fashionable. Bertha was once a cool name for upper class babies, but it is easily copyable by lower classes and as it becomes more ‘common’ the elites move on to names that are more purely elite until Bertha becomes a purely lower-class name. Eventually even the poor abandon it and copy names that have a more elite sound.
Similar fads determine military service. Some societies have made military service a prerequisite for elite status. The American South was once such a society. But then the military was integrated and the white elites could not claim it as part of their privilege. And then the cold-war created a large standing army for the first time in American history. It is expensive to keep a large army of elites and many were forced to work on foreign bases away from domestic elite social circles. That further eroded the cachet of the military. Then, we had an unpopular war that many elites considered misguided. And finally, the end of the draft meant that fewer elites were forced to serve. American elites decided that bribing people to enlist is more mutilitarian-efficient and drafting elites was no longer needed. As a result, the military will be seen more and more as a kind of welfare-to work training program for lower-income families and immigrants.
The military is less of a cross-section of American society than it was during Korea and as military veterans get less representative of the nation, the gap between the military and the rest of society will widen. If the trend continues, there won’t be as much interest in Memorial Day after the older, more elite generation of veterans passes away. It will lose its historic significance and perhaps society will create new legends to base our future holiday traditions upon. Easter got the bunny, Christmas got Santa, and Halloween became about cartoon-monsters and candy. What will the new Memorial Day tradition be? I predict it will be something to do with fire and ice. The holiday is already morphing into an annual barbeque cook-off with ample chilled drinks.