Memorial Day: It's okay to wear white shoes now

While out running errands this morning on Connecticut Avenue in the far northwest part of Washington, D.C., I was struck by how quiet it was — even compared to other Sundays — in terms of low traffic density. And quietness.

Then I heard it: the noise of several Harleys in unison moving south on the avenue.

Memorial Day in the United States was established to remember the service of Americans who died while serving in the military. It started after the Civil War. It is one of those “eggwhite” rituals, to use the term of British cultural anthropologist Tristram Riley-Smith, that pulls together many people in this diverse country. (See my “Must Read” review of his book, The Cracked Bell.)

“Whites.” Creative commons licensed photo from Flickr user Niklas Hellerstedt.

I emailed Riley-Smith this morning about Memorial Day, commenting to him that D.C. seems to be marked by a mass exodus of many people to the beach and in influx of Harley-riding bikers at the same time. Responding from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, where he has been launching his book, he sent me the following material which is similar to his writing about “Rolling Thunder ” in his book:

This is a nation all too often disappointed when those it seeks to liberate fail to show their appreciation, but with Vietnam the American people blamed returning draftees for the disastrous conduct of the war. They blamed draftees who had been sent into a battle they neither wanted nor approved of, all too often being pushed into the front line to protect the regulars.

The “Ride to the Wall” on Memorial Day, also known as Rolling Thunder, was initiated by these unhappy outcasts who felt the government wasn’t doing enough to recover the POWs and the remains of the dead abandoned in Indo-China. This protest has now been absorbed into the mainstream. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, the highways into D.C. become choked with convoys of Harley-Davidsons, with silencers removed, heading for the Mall and the Vietnam Memorial, where one is likely to encounter a huge, wild-eyed vet in grey pony-tail, studs, tattoos and leather biker’s gear being embraced by a young, uniformed, close-shaven Marine.

The Gold Star Mums are there to heal the wounds as well, “to give these poor outcasts the hugs they never had,” as one put it, “when they returned home.”

The Vietnam-American war (as it is called in Vietnam) took many, many lives, both American and Vietnamese. It irreparably damaged many more lives, here and there. Following the war, a new term appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that lists and classifies Western psychiatric diagnoses. The new term was Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

It also created deep rupture lines in anthropology; cultural anthropologists doing fieldwork in Southeast Asia often had knowledge of which villagers were sympathizers with the U.S. enemy. Some anthropologists took it as their duty, as American citizens supporting their country’s war efforts, to submit the names of such people to the U.S. military. Those people were killed.

Other anthropologists decried this complicity of anthropologists with the military and the abuse of people’s trust in someone who was supposedly a scholar seeking only to learn about their lives in order to write a book about it someday.

Out of this painful rupture grew the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, likely the first such code in any social science discipline anywhere that put as its first research commandment: do no harm. That means, among the people with whom you are doing research, do the very best you can to make sure that your research does not harm them, and if you have any concern that you might do them harm, stop doing your research immediately and find another topic or population to study. Do no harm to their lives or else get out of their lives.

Back to Memorial Day. Riley-Smith is right when he says, in his book, that more than Veterans Day, Memorial Day “is wired into America’s martial traditions” (p 195). It will likely be celebrated for a long time to come since we seem to keep waging war.

Riley-Smith also rightly notes the secular importance of the holiday: public swimming pools open, people go on picnics, and — something from my era — women can now wear white, especially as in shoes which you just couldn’t do before Memorial Day (The New York Times acknowledged the enduring nature of the white clothing rule in its style section today).

Under blue skies as brilliant as those on 9/11, here in Washington, we have a perfect day for a picnic, for remembering the pain of war and for a fervent wish for a rule that there can be no war after Memorial Day, or before it. Every year, on end.

3 thoughts on “Memorial Day: It's okay to wear white shoes now

  1. Henry

    How can you pretend to explain the historical development of Memorial Day without even the mentioning the nomenclature behind Rolling Thunder? Operation Rolling Thunder was the deadliest and most sustained bombing campaign since World War II, perpetrated upon the people of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. True, the assault led to hundreds of MIA/POWs, many of whom were never recovered because, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military only cares for its combat veterans as much as is necessary to sustain its wars. Even considering the ostensible humanitarian motivation of the movement, the sight of motorcycles roaring down Constitution Avenue each year is at best an unfortunate metaphor and at worst a celebration of one of the most abhorrent episodes in American history.


  2. Pingback: Caution: Last White-Shoe Weekend of 2010 « NotionsCapital

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