Sometimes the stars align. In those case, several anniversaries do.
Memorial Day 2020 marks the 205th anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, the 155th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 40th anniversary of the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran.
As we pause this Memorial Day to remember those who have fallen in America’s service across multiple centuries and multiple conflicts, let’s make special note of that unusual confluence of anniversaries.
The War of 1812 is one that we often skip over. Even the name gives short shrift to this war, which actually continued on to 1815. The battle we remember most — the Battle of New Orleans, which made Andrew Jackson a hero and Johnny Horton a Grammy-winning hit single — came in January of that final year. A better name might give us a better appreciation for the significance of this conflict. Technically speaking, the war was something of a draw, but that was good enough to reaffirm America’s independence. The British burned Washington but the Union Jack was not hoisted again over the former colonies. The war also gave us a song that we later adopted as our national anthem – Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” while watching the unsuccessful British attack on Baltimore.
The war’s other lasting consequence: It guaranteed the independence of Canada. Thomas Jefferson, in retirement, had predicted that taking Canada was merely “a matter of marching.” That turned out to be wildly wrong. American attempts to liberate the British colonies to the north were spectacular failures. Canada did not formally become independent until 1876, but Canadians regard the War of 1812 as the event that made their independence possible. Where in the world can you find a triumphal statue that shows a soldier standing over a fallen American? Not in Tehran, but in Toronto. (We focus on the British burning of Washington but overlook that they did so in retaliation for Americans burning Toronto). We also forget that not every conflict produces a “rally around the flag” movement. The War of 1812 was deeply unpopular in many parts of the United States; some in New England even talked of secession.
The Civil War, by contrast, is deeply ingrained in our consciousness. Mark Twain once wrote that the “cataclysm” of the Civil War “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” As historian James McPherson points out, “five generations have passed, and we are still measuring the consequences of that cataclysm.” In a way, people are still dying from the Civil War. The deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017 was ostensibly about protecting the city’s Confederate statues. This year’s General Assembly passed a law allowing localities to take down statues, so some places will now hear all the debates about why they’re there in the first place. One of the stranger aspects of our current political atmosphere is how the Confederate flag has been employed outside the South. We saw it waved a few weeks ago in Ohio when protestors were demanding the state lift its pandemic restrictions. And we saw a state legislator in Michigan wear a face mask with the Confederate battle flag on it. These people forget their own history. Some 24,951 soldiers from Ohio and 14,753 soldiers from Michigan died in that war to stamp out that rebel flag and the cause it represented. It’s bad enough when Southerners try to resurrect that flag in the misguided name of “heritage” but when people from Ohio and Michigan do, they truly dishonor their own state’s heritage.
World War II marks another bright line through history. Memorial Day 1945 found America both mourning its losses and celebrating a war that President Truman had called “half won.” Germany was defeated; Japan was not. The nation braced itself for what it thought would be a bloody invasion of Japan. Only a few knew of what American scientists were getting ready to explode in a New Mexico desert. When Japan finally surrendered that September, the peace that followed ushered an entirely new world that we simply call “the post-war era.” Just about everything began to change.
The Vietnam War is officially dated as ending in 1975 when North Vietnamese troops rolled into Saigon, which was soon renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Few things have been as divisive in American history as the Vietnam War and there’s no need to re-litigate those issues today. Strangely, that war produced no presidents the way our other big wars did. Two Vietnam veterans from different parties — John Kerry and John McCain — came close, but not close enough.
The Iranian hostage rescue attempt in 1980 is an event that even many who lived through that era now forget. We remember Jimmy Carter as a weak, indecisive president, yet he approved a daring plan that, if had worked, would have been regarded as a spectacular feat of American military power. Instead, it failed, costing eight Americans their lives (including one from Roanoke, John Davis Harvey) and Carter the presidency. The plan was complicated, probably too complicated. First, American forces would land at a site code-named Desert One. Then the helicopters would refuel and ferry the troops to another site, Desert Two, about 52 miles outside Tehran. The plan was to hide out by day and then at night launch an assault on the embassy to rescue the hostages and take them to a nearby stadium, where they’d be loaded onto helicopters to fly to an Iranian airbase. Other American forces would have captured that air base so that bigger aircraft could fly in to bring the hostages home. There were many opportunities for things to go wrong — badly wrong. Reading the plan today, it’s hard to believe it would have resulted in anything other than a bloodbath. Instead, the plan went awry at the outset. Three of the eight helicopters malfunctioned; the remaining five weren’t enough to carry out the mission, so it was aborted. As the remaining aircraft tried to evacuate there was a collision — and death.
On this Memorial Day, pause to remember their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of all those who have given their lives in America’s name.