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War and Remembrance: Reflections on Gratitude, Memorial Day, and Schools

By David N. Miller

“I want to tell you what the opening of the second front entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful for those both dead and alive who did it for you.”
—Ernie Pyle, June 12, 1944

The above quote by the reporter and war correspondent Ernie Pyle, written 6 days after the allied invasion of Europe known as “D-Day,” is an admonition to his audience to not take the sacrifices made by others on their behalf for granted. In other words, it is about the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief discussion of gratitude in children and youth, with a particular focus on its many benefits. Because the practice of gratitude has clear relevance to Memorial Day, information pertaining to why and how children and youth should be grateful for veterans will be used as an illustration for discussing what schools and school psychologists can do to promote gratitude in students.

There has recently been an increasing interest in the psychology of gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2004) as well as other positive emotions, characters, strengths, and virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Although the adult literature on gratitude has grown significantly in the last few decades, there is much less research available on promoting gratitude in children and youth (Froh, Miller, & Snyder, 2007). What is known, however, is that gratitude—which can be conceptualized as a virtue or an emotional state—appears to be psychologically beneficial. For example, although genuine gratitude does not appear to develop until early adolescence (Froh et al., 2007), its presence has been related to positive subjective well-being as well as greater peer and familial support and satisfaction among students in this age group (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, in press). The development of gratitude may also be useful for building enduring social, intellectual, and physical resources (Fredrickson, 2004), serving as a buffer against excessive materialism, and increasing achievement motivation (Bono & Froh, in press).

Moreover, research with adults suggests that those who frequently feel and express gratitude appear to experience greater personal and professional satisfaction, are more optimistic and energetic, and are more likely to be helpful and supportive to others in comparison to people who do not experience gratitude (Emmons, 2007; Emmons & McCullough, 2004). The active engagement in gratitude also appears to be a viable method for increasing and sustaining individual happiness (Lyubomirsky, 2007; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005) as well as enhancing the probability of prosocial behavior (Tsang, 2006). In sum, the potential benefits of gratitude are substantial, not only for individuals but also for society (Emmons & McCullough, 2004).

Promoting Gratitude in Children and Youth

In many cases, gratitude does not come naturally; it often requires practice and effort as well as a certain level of inner reflection and introspection (Miller, 2006). Furthermore, particular traits or characteristics may increase or decrease the likelihood that a given student will be grateful for a particular person, activity, or thing. For example, variables likely to promote the experience and expression of gratitude include optimism, empathy, humility, perspective taking, and having a spiritual orientation. Potential obstacles to gratitude include a sense of entitlement, lack of self-reflection, excessive materialism, and the perception that one is a passive victim (Emmons & McCullough, 2004). Given that many children and adolescents may have some or many of the characteristics that may present obstacles to gratitude, it would appear that these issues might need to be addressed before engaging in interventions designed to promote gratitude. All students, however, could clearly benefit by experiencing and expressing gratitude to a greater degree.

One potential school-based intervention for promoting gratitude involves having students complete what is known as a“gratitude journal.” This practice was developed by Robert Emmons and his colleagues, who found in multiple studies that engaging in a task as simple as the self-monitoring and recording of events for which one is grateful can lead to greater prosocial behavior and subjective well-being (Emmons, 2007; Emmons & McCullough, 2004). Although most of the work to date with gratitude journals has involved adults, Froh and his colleagues (in press) recently conducted the first study examining the effects of “counting blessings” in middle school students and found similarly positive results. Specifically, these researchers found that counting blessings was associated with enhanced self-reported gratitude, optimism, and life satisfaction, as well as decreased negative emotions, among students who kept gratitude journals in comparison to students who did not. Given that this intervention is very brief, easy to implement, and has empirical support for its effectiveness, it could be potentially useful for children and youth in schools (for more on the development, assessment, and promotion of gratitude in children and youth, see Froh et al., 2007 and Bono & Froh, in press).

Individuals using gratitude journals are typically asked to write down four or five particular things (e.g., people, events, activities, material possessions, etc.) for which they are grateful. Although most middle and high school students could complete this exercise, it is likely that many give little if any thought to military veterans in this regard, unless they have a personal connection (e.g., sibling) to someone in the military. There are many reasons children and youth should be grateful to members of the military, however, and there is no better time to promote this than on Memorial Day.

Gratitude and Memorial Day

The expression of gratitude is clearly important to Americans, given that there are multiple American holidays devoted to it. Thanksgiving, of course, is the holiday perhaps most clearly associated with gratitude for most people in the U.S. (Miller, 2006). Another holiday designed for the expression of gratitude, although one of a different kind than Thanksgiving, is Memorial Day. Unfortunately, for many children and adolescents the only significance of Memorial Day is that it is a day off from school and the last major holiday before summer vacation. Most children, and for that matter many adults, are not sufficiently aware of the meaning and significance of Memorial Day, which began as a means for honoring Civil War veterans killed in battle.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 and was first observed on May 30 of that year, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Originally known as Decoration Day, the alternative name “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882, but that designation did not come into common usage until after World War II and was not declared the official name until 1967. Today, Memorial Day is a federal holiday observed on the last Monday in May. In contrast to Veterans Day (November 11), which is largely intended to honor living veterans, Memorial Day is designed to commemorate U.S. men and women who died in military service to their country.

Because Memorial Day is about remembering and reflecting upon the sacrifices of others for the benefit of the collective, it is ultimately about gratitude. For a variety of reasons, however, children in our nation’s schools frequently receive less instruction than they should about the various military conflicts in American history, and about the individuals who fought and died in those wars. As a result, they often may not be sufficiently grateful for the sacrifices made by previous generations on their behalf. For example, the Korean conflict of the 1950s has frequently been described as “the forgotten war” (Blair, 2003), and many of those who served in it did not and have not received the recognition they deserve.

Additionally, the war in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s did not have broad national support, and as a result many veterans returned to find others often lacking in appreciation for their service. Although more recently Americans have demonstrated a greater sense of gratitude for veterans of the first Gulf War and the current war in Iraq, there is a tendency among many to perhaps not sufficiently appreciate the many sacrifices— including the ultimate sacrifice—made by U.S. war veterans in their service to their country and to others. The importance of expressing gratitude for veterans can perhaps best be illustrated by that group of Americans known as “the greatest generation” (Brokaw, 1998): the men and women who served and died in World War II.

Appreciation for "The Greatest Generation"

Although Memorial Day honors the deceased veterans of all American wars, it may be particularly important for children and youth to recognize and be grateful for those who fought in the Second World War, a group now dying at a rate of 1000 per day (Burns, 2007). For those who fought in it, World War II was the central and defining experience of their lives (Brokaw, 1998). Children and adolescents may not be sufficiently aware that these individuals fought a war in two separate theaters (Europe and the Pacific), removed several dictators from power, liberated millions, and quite literally saved the world (Ambrose, 1997; Miller, 2001). Despite these accomplishments, few veterans of World War II received appropriate recognition or even a parade upon their return, and most simply went back to the life they knew before the war, trying to forget the horrors they witnessed and the friends they saw killed.

Many returning veterans, however, privately noted what they perceived to be a lack of gratitude among Americans for their service to the United States and the world. For example, after returning from overseas in 1946, former marine Eugene Sledge noted in one of his memoirs that “people rushed around in a hurry about seemingly insignificant things. Few seemed to realize how blessed they were to be free and untouched by the horrors of war” (Sledge, 2002, p. 130). An infantryman who experienced some of the most vicious fighting in the Pacific, Sledge found after his return that he was “totally unprepared for how most Americans who did not experience combat would forget about the war” and that he “didn’t realize how swiftly most Americans would once again take their freedom for granted” (2002, p. 135).

Fortunately, during the last ten years or so there has been an outpouring of interest and appreciation for veterans of that war, reflected in the creation of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, a national World War II Museum in New Orleans, several best-selling books (e.g., Ambrose, 1997; Brokaw, 1998; Sides, 2001; Ward & Burns, 2007), a number of award-winning films (e.g., Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima), and Ken Burns’ recent epic documentary, The War. Despite this renewed interest and level of appreciation, the degree to which children and youth understand and gratefully acknowledge the many sacrifices of World War II veterans is at best questionable. Burns (2007) noted that one of his primary reasons for making The War was his discovery that “an unacceptably large number of graduating high school seniors think we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War” (p. xvi), a finding that appalled him and should be sobering to all school personnel. Before this “greatest generation” fades away forever, we can and should teach our nation’s youth about them and their extraordinary achievements.

Possible Roles for Schools and School Psychologists in Promoting Gratitude

What can schools, and school psychologists, do to promote gratitude among children and youth for the nation’s veterans? For starters, students would benefit from more exposure to the major military conflicts in American history, as well as the personal sacrifices involved in them. Popular documentaries such as Burns’ The War and The Civil War can be helpful in this regard, especially because they combine the “big picture” of military conflicts (e.g., causes, major battles, prominent figures) with intimate, personal stories of real people making real sacrifices for the benefit of others. Field trips to battlefield sites/memorials, museums, and veterans’ hospitals also could be useful instructional tools, and school psychologists can help coordinate these efforts.

As a supplement to field trips, several books are available that discuss the history, value, and significance of particular war memorials (e.g., Bond & Fitzgerald, 2007) and military cemeteries (e.g., Atkinson, 2007). Books also are available that attempt to discuss military conflicts such as World War II in developmentally appropriate ways for younger readers (e.g., Ambrose, 2001), giving students information about war without glorifying, distorting, or trivializing it. Finally, having actual veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, or the current Iraq War visit classrooms and discuss some of their experiences could be immensely valuable and beneficial for students. School psychologists can and should assist teachers and other school personnel in these activities.

In addition, the use of gratitude journals as described above could be potentially useful. For example, middle or high school students might be asked to keep a journal listing five things for which they are grateful as a result of living in a free country. Similarly, essay assignments can be given in which students are asked to reflect on how the sacrifices made by others in past military conflicts have led to direct benefits for students today. Highly energetic and engaged classroom discussions could also be generated on this topic.

Given that genuine gratitude does not appear to fully develop for most students until middle school (Froh, Miller, & Snyder, 2007), it would appear logical to begin teaching about and promoting gratitude for the nation’s veterans (both living and dead) during or after this period. In addition, most children will not even begin to cognitively understand the enormous complexities of human warfare until adolescence, and even then school personnel must be careful not to romanticize war or engage in jingoistic rhetoric. Similarly, it is important to note that teaching children to appreciate and be grateful for the sacrifices of veterans does not mean that students should be taught that all wars are “good” (no war fits that category) or “necessary” (a word often used in describing World War II). As is clearly illustrated by the current situation in Iraq, students should be taught that “supporting veterans” does not necessarily imply supporting the war in which they are engaged. One does not have to support a particular war to be grateful for members of the military who are fighting and dying, even if the precise reasons for that fighting are sometimes vague or even misguided.

Conclusion

The title of Herman Wouk’s World War II historical novel, War and Remembrance (2002), concisely summarizes in three short words the reason for and the significance of Memorial Day. On this Memorial Day, let us teach our nation’s youth to pause during their day off from school and reflect with gratitude on the thousands of Americans who, in the words of Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, “gave the last full measure of devotion” for the benefit of others. They deserve much more, and nothing less.

David N. Miller, PhD, is the director of the school psychology program at the University at Albany, State University of New York. E-mail: dmiller@uamail.albany.edu. This article is dedicated to the author’s father, Donald A. Miller, a member of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion who served with distinction in the European theater of operations during the Second World War.

References

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Ambrose, S. E. (2001). The good fight: How World War II was won. New York: Antheum.

Atkinson, R. (2007). Where valor rests: Arlington National Cemetery. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Blair, C. (2003). The forgotten war: America in Korea, 1950–1953. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

Bond, L., & Fitzgerald, F. (2007). The mighty fallen: Our nation’s greatest war memorials. New York: HarperCollins.

Bono, G., & Froh, J. J. (in press). Gratitude in schools: Benefits to students and schools. In R. Gilman, E. S. Huebner, & M. Furlong (Eds.), Promoting wellness in children and youth: A handbook of positive psychology in the schools. New York: Routledge.

Brokaw, T. (1998). The greatest generation. New York: Random House.

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