Memorial Day: Then and Now

Memorial Day typically signals the start of the summer holidays, which culminate on Labor Day in early September. Traffic in New York City streets thin, and on many streets traffic lights don’t seem necessary — a welcome harbinger for some of the days to come when the school year ends and those who can afford to typically flee the city for the country. Our sense that Memorial Day is a day for play was fostered in 1971 when Congress passed a law to schedule four national holidays on Mondays to give federal workers a three-day holiday weekend. It is precisely because the original purpose of the holiday often appears lost that a website called was created.¹ 

Originally called Decoration Day, it was an occasion for people to go to cemeteries and decorate the graves of those who fought and died for the North in the Civil War to preserve the Union. The holiday was not acknowledged by the South until after World War I when its focus was expanded to honor Americans who died fighting in any war. But of late some national memorials, for instance the National Oklahoma City Memorial & Museum and the September 11 National Memorial & Museum, have come to treat victims of terrorist attacks as if they were military heroes, and honoring them accordingly. Both the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City were terrorist attacks and the majority of those killed were victims who went to work. Both memorials were heavily influenced by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was, as Kirk Savage pointed out, “the nation’s first `therapeutic’ memorial … a memorial made expressly to heal a collective psychological injury.”²  Commissioned by the veterans of the war, it was intended “to heal a nation”.  (In fact this was the title of the book written by Jan Scruggs, the veteran who spearheaded the project, and Joel L. Swerdlow.)  Some subsequent national memorials were intended to heal the families of those who died in them.

The Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center attacks, as well as the shootings at Columbine High School, were all events that challenged myths of an already frayed sense national identity: the Vietnam War that the United States is a country that doesn’t lose wars; Oklahoma City that the heartland is safe; Columbine that high school (especially in an affluent community) is an idyllic time; and 9/11 that the country was vulnerable to attack at the perceived center of its economic power (and implicitly much else).  All in some way diverted attention from the causes of death to the victims who died, conflating them with heroes in the process.

Speaking at the dedication of the site of the memorial on the fifth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing in 2000, President Clinton reminded the audience that this was also “the 225th anniversary of the American Revolution.”  He continued: “There are places in our national landscape so scarred by freedom’s sacrifice that they shape forever the soul of America – Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and Selma.”³ For the most part this conflation of the killing fields of war and the sites of civilian protest and destruction has continued.  On Memorial Day visitors typically leave small American flags at National 911 Memorial next to the names of those who died. But the victims of Oklahoma City, Columbine and 9/11 were not soldiers doing their job; they were what would in a military context have been called “collateral damage.” 

This raises troubling questions about categories of victims. Although rarely differentiated, distinct groups of victims do exist: for example, those who fight in wars (whether by choice or draft) who are by definition at risk and might possibly be considered victims of misguided national policies; those who die as victims of genocide such as the Holocaust; and those who die in acts of terrorism during the course of their daily lives. Memorial Day was created to honor the military sacrifices of those who fought to protect this country and we should not conflate them – either on this holiday or in our memorials – with civilians who tragically died as a result of terrorist attacks. Memorial Day would also be a good time to reflect on the wars fought by this country and what they accomplished.

¹ Maintained today by Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, it provides much of the historical information about below.

² See Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington D.C.: the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 267.

³ This quote was cited in many articles.  See, for example, Ann Scales,” This Place Is Such Sacred Ground,” Boston Globe, April 20, 2000. A3.

Harriet F. Senie

Harriet F. Senie

Harriet F. Senie, author of Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11, is Director of the M.A. Program in Art History and Art Museum Studies at City College, City University of New York, and also teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of several books and numerous articles on public art, and is co-founder of the international organization Public Art Dialogue and co-editor of its journal, Public Art Dialogue. For more information please visit
Harriet F. Senie