Last night I watched the latest telecast of the National Memorial Day Concert on PBS, and having watched these extravaganzae regularly for many years I have the impression that about 20 or even 10 years ago they were genuinely concerts —performances of music by the National Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Jack Eberly now that the founder of the concerts, Erich Kunzel, has passed on) with various guest stars, mostly popular singers, performing vaguely patriotic songs — and the ceremonial tributes to the men and (increasingly) women of the U.S. military, including the Ken Burns-ish segments in which relatively prominent actors read statements purporting to be from real servicemembers discussing how they got wounded in combat, were seasoning. It’s possible my recollections are wrong and I’m conflating this with the Fourth of July concerts from the same locale (the outside of the Washington Capitol) also telecast each year by PBS, but it seemed like this time it was the memorials and tributes that were the main business of the show and the musical selections almost an afterthought. One wrinkle this year was that instead of focusing on the stories of servicemembers who died in combat, the show chose to fix on people who were wounded and became seriously disabled from combat injuries but survived. At least that’s partly the result of improvements in battlefield medicine, which has got better at keeping wounded soldiers alive but at the cost of preserving them in an injured state that requires heavy-duty care (and has been one of the factors busting the budget of the Veterans’ Administration, which is supposed to provide vets state-of-the-art care and, at least in my impression, genuinely does so once you can get in: the trick is to get in). Anyway, a monument paying tribute to wounded veterans has just opened up and it’s being accompanied by a major push to raise money and recruit volunteers for long-term care for people like Sgt. Roni Camargo, who was turned into a quadriplegic by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq — or was it a grenade in Afghanistan? The sob stories did tend to blend together after a while — though what came through most strongly in Sgt. Camargo’s story was the incredible devotion and commitment of his wife Gabrielle, who was at his bedside almost as soon as he returned home and has been there as his principal caregiver ever since. (Given how I’ve made my living for the last 30 years — albeit never with someone needing so much help as Sgt. Camargo, who needs to be on a ventilator for four hours a day and was scared shitless the first time he breathed without it post-injury the way a less severely injured person might worry about whether they could walk again even if their physical wounds had healed — I couldn’t help but be impressed with the beauty and depth of her commitment to him.)
The show probably revolves too much around the “regulars” who do it every year — hosts Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise (who, you’ll recall, played a servicemember who lost his legs in combat in Forrest Gump) and “inspirational” speaker General Colin Powell (remember when it was he, not Barack Obama, whom people thought would be the first African-American U.S. President?) — though it was legitimately powerful and the writers did do a good job seamlessly integrating the few songs into the narratives. The most powerful moment was when Laurence Fishburne’s tribute to Sgt. Ted Strong, who lost both his legs and one arm and finally, after years of struggle and practice, re-learned how to walk on prosthetic limbs, was followed by Gloria Estefan singing a slow, moving song called “Coming Out of the Dark.” It was a song, she later explained, she wrote after her own life-threatening injuries when her tour bus crashed, but it fit the mood beautifully and showed how sensitive a singer she can actually be when she has the right chance (and the right material). There was also a performance of “I Will Always Love You” by someone named (I think) Tessan Chin, who won the most recent round of NBC’s “reality” competition The Voice but who really doesn’t sound like that sort of contest winner: instead of belting the song out the way Céline Dion did in the Titanic soundtrack, she made it softer, more somber and, at least to me, more moving. (In the how-the-mighty-have-fallen category the latest winner of American Idol, Nick Frutioni, was also featured but far less prominently; he was just trotted out to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the opening.) Aside from Estefan (who returned to sing “God Bless America” just before the medley of military marches that closed the program — which couldn’t help remind me of the incensed Right-wing commentator who, after a naturalized U.S. citizen sang the song at a public concert, wrote incensed, “What makes an immigrant think he has the right to sing ‘God Bless America?,’” to which the response that immediately occurred to me was, “Well, for one thing, an immigrant wrote it”), the best singer featured was soprano Katherine Jenkins, who sang a lovely “Sanctus” and later returned for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — showcasing a powerful voice even though her pronunciation made her sound like an honors graduate at the Joan Sutherland School of Diction.
The Memorial Day Concert is one of those occasions for the sappiest sort of patriotism, yet it also occurred to me that as much as I loathe what the military actually does (and coupled with that is an equal loathing for the fact that we need one — maybe not the one we have now, poking its collective nose into other countries’ internal struggles and trying to lord it over the world since mass killing is the one thing the U.S. still does better than any other country on earth), it’s an oddly counter-Zeitgeist institution in a weird way. For all the extent to which “rugged individualism” has become the ruling ideology not only of the U.S. but, increasingly, the world — for all the degree to which we’re told by the corporations and their servants who actually run things that we’re all here on our own, that other people are not to be trusted and the very idea of coming together for a common purpose is at odds with basic human nature — the military remains one of the most powerful counter-examples: an institution set up from the get-go to bring people together, despite their differences in background and personal philosophy, and train them to pursue a common goal and put the interests of the institution as a whole against their desires as individuals. It’s fascinatingly ironic that the strongest supporters of the U.S. military are the members of the political Right — the tendency that otherwise rejects the whole idea that humans either should or even can come together for a broader purpose than their own individual gain — while its biggest opponents are Leftists who otherwise entertain the hope that society could someday be ordered in a way where people in civilian life do what the members of the military are trained and expected to do every day: to sacrifice their own interests for the common good of the whole. And it just adds to the irony that the purpose of a military — the goal for which they come together and subsume their own individual interests for the institution and for each other — is to kill members of another country’s military that are doing the same thing.