You might think this article comes a little late since it’s being published after Memorial Day. But now that Memorial Day has come and gone, it’s worth thinking about what it represents and why the debate about Memorial Day is so crucial. “Debate,” you might say. “What debate?”

Yes, there is a debate. On one side are those who say that the purpose of Memorial Day is, or should be, to honor soldiers who have fought, or are fighting, for our freedom. This is the view we hear a lot on and around Memorial Day. We hear it from presidents, governors, congressmen, mayors, military officers, and military analysts. On the other side are those who say that the purpose of Memorial Day is to mourn those who lost their lives in wars and to reflect on how to prevent this from happening in the future. We hear this view from antiwar activists and those who, more generally, are fairly skeptical of governments’ motives and actions.

I would love not to have such a debate. And that’s why I waited. There are a lot of people in the United States whose relatives or friends died or were wounded in foreign wars. It must be hard for them to hear or read armchair analysts like me talking about the “real meaning” of Memorial Day.

But the debate is important because, unfortunately, one of the main ways most Americans get their history is from what is said on national holidays, especially July 4, Memorial Day, Presidents’ Day, and Veterans’ Day. There is so much emotion around those days that various advocates can get away with historical misinformation cloaked in sentiment. I think that’s why they fight so hard for their meaning of Memorial Day: it’s a way to accomplish with sentiment what is much harder to accomplish with rational argument.

Exhibit A of the tendency to cloak argument in sentiment is a recent essay for National Review Online, “Mystic Chords of Memory,” by contributing editor Mackubin Thomas Owens. “Mac” Owens, as he is known to friends and colleagues, is an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Before I get to my criticism, I want to note that I spent a weekend at a conference with him about two years ago, and I like and respect him. He’s a serious academic with an important viewpoint that he articulates well. It’s exactly that fact, though, that makes his article disturbing.

This is from David R. Henderson, “The Fight for Memorial Day,” antiwar.com, May 27, 2008.

On my Substack, I posted the whole of my 2006 piece on Memorial Day. This covers some of the same ground but also digs into Mac Owens’s argument.