Roger Barbee: Paying homage

A small crowd gathers at the Confederate cemetery in Mount Jackson on Veterans Day. Photo courtesy of Roger Barbee

Last week, Nov. 11, was an important day for our country. Set aside as a national holiday to pay homage to the brave men and woman who have served or are serving in the military, the day is observed in many fashions.

Across our country there are parades, speeches, gatherings of veterans, and classroom talks given in order to honor those who have served. Some local newspapers print photographs with names of local veterans, and this year, for the first time, a privately sponsored Concert for Valor was held on the National Mall. American flags are placed on the graves that are the final resting places for our sons and daughters who died protecting our country and its values.

Federal and state offices close, as do many school districts in order to honor this day. The schools that remain open have programs that help students understand the importance of Veterans Day. It is a day of solemn remembrance and thanksgiving, and its date is no accident.

Nov. 11, 1918 marks the armistice of World War I, or The Great War, because the armistice, or temporary cessation of fighting, was signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. In declaring this date a national holiday, in November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…” In 1954 the day of observance was changed to Veterans Day in order to also honor soldiers of World War II and Korea.

In England this past July, volunteers began placing 888,246 red ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London — one poppy for each British fatality in The Great War, the war that was so terrible it would be “the war to end all wars.” The last poppy was placed in the moat on November 11th at the 11th hour to mark Britain’s tribute to its dead of World War I.

I am not a veteran of our armed forces, but I do admire and appreciate what veterans have done to protect my liberties. If you ask a veteran of war, he or she will tell you that it is not a neat and tidy experience as portrayed by Hollywood actors. Yet, so many of our youth have stepped up to go to distant lands to fight. Giving them a day of honor or a “thanks for serving” comment in a store or airport or wherever seems such a small token. While all of these gestures are good efforts, I wonder how I can thank someone for going into harm’s way to protect my American way of life. How do I thank someone who is willing to die for me to be free, even free to speak out against their willingness to fight for me? The Concert for Valor, the red ceramic poppies, the parades, the flags, the speeches — none seem quite enough, but it is what we do, and I conclude that, as small as it is, it is better than nothing.

All of this brings me to my driving through Mount Jackson on Veterans Day when I noticed a small crowd in the Confederate soldier’s cemetery in the north part of town. Puzzled, I continued onward, but on my way back I parked on the road’s shoulder to observe the occasion. There were small Confederate flags placed all over the ground — at graves, perhaps. A speaker was talking to the crowd below the Confederate soldier statue, and a Confederate flag flew above all.

The fallen soldiers in that cemetery fought and died trying to defeat the United States of America. Had they won, we would not be the nation we are today. Had those fallen ones prevailed, slavery would have continued. Had those souls won, the South would have become a nation of its own, dividing this great country. In my eyes, to honor “the lost cause” on such a day as Veterans Day is a mockery.

However, those people have every right to observe Veterans Day in any way they see fit. They have every right to place small Confederate flags all over the cemetery and to hear speakers and to fly the Confederate flag above the American flag. After all, that is why so many veterans have died and fought — so that citizens like those may assemble when and how they wish to honor who or what they want.

Even while we disagree about what should be honored and admired, what should be celebrated and striven for, we can celebrate our ability to do so in freedom, and thank those who have fought and died that we may do so.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.