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A Smaller Parade, a Better Parade

May 25, 2003|Kevin Coyne | Kevin Coyne is author of "Marching Home: To War and Back With the Men of One American Town" (Viking, 2003).

FREEHOLD, N.J. — On Memorial Day this year, my hometown will do what it has done every Memorial Day for more than 130 years: gather along Main Street for a parade to salute our veterans. Bands will play, fire trucks and floats will roll by, Scouts will wave flags as they march past, but the center of the ritual will be the aging men at the head of the line who served in the deadliest war in history, World War II.

Last year's parade, the first in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, was the largest in recent memory, and this year's, following so closely the war in Iraq, is likely to swell to a similar size. But although the parade may have more patriotic fervor than usual, what it will inevitably have less of is actual veterans -- because Memorial Day is gradually becoming a different holiday from what it has been in recent decades.

Memorial Day started in the United States as a ritual of remembrance in the years after the Civil War. The living would march out to the cemeteries in their towns to decorate the graves of the recent dead. In my town, those small early parades were led by Dolly, the gray mare who had carried the most prominent local hero, Maj. Peter Vredenburgh, into the Battle of Opequon Creek. As Vredenburgh led his men in a charge against a Confederate battery, he was hit by an enemy shell and killed. Dolly survived, minus a piece of her ear, and returned home to her annual duty of leading the marchers to her master's grave, where the day's ceremonies concluded.

The Civil War veterans were joined, and eventually replaced, in the Memorial Day parades by veterans of other wars -- the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea and Vietnam. But the veterans who came to dominate the parades, who filled Main Streets everywhere in the second half of the 20th century, were those who served in the war that put more Americans into uniform -- 16 million in all -- than any other. Of the 7,000 or so people who lived in my town during World War II, more than 900 served. Of the 12 doctors in town, six were away in the service.

As different as all these wars were, they had at least one thing in common: They were fought by civilians, by men who had been farmers and millworkers before they enlisted or were drafted; men who then came back to rejoin their communities, to resume their lives on the web of streets surrounding the one that -- on one day each year, squeezed into their old uniforms -- they marched along to the applause of their neighbors.

But the draft is long gone now, and the military is a profession, not a civic duty. Of the 300,000 troops who served in the Iraq war, many will not be home in time to march in this year's parades. And in future years they will always seem a small contingent when their numbers are measured by the memory of parades past.

As the vast population of World War II veterans has thinned in recent years, their ranks in the parades have shrunk. The youngest of them are in their mid-70s, and they are often outnumbered now by veterans from Korea and Vietnam.

That shrinkage is sad, of course, marking as it does the passage of a generation, but in it is also their largest victory -- that there has been no other great war on the scale of theirs; that no calamity that has since visited the world has been so vast as to require that almost every able-bodied young man be pressed into service; that no throngs of new soldiers have taken their place in this annual ritual.

A smaller parade is, in this case, a better parade. When we see fewer veterans marching down Main Street each year, that means fewer neighbors among us have been called on to fight.

But as their numbers dwindle, the meaning of what they did only grows. In the absence of veterans on Memorial Day is the fullness of their legacy -- the rough peace in the world that their service secured for us.

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