This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on May 28, 2007.
Memorial Day can be a difficult observance for me. Memorial Day is meant to be an annual event honoring the dedication and remembering the sacrifice of those who have died serving our country in uniform. I have no problem reverencing and expressing my sincerest appreciation for such selflessness. My struggle with Memorial Day is that I cannot think upon the sacrifices that have been made without recoiling at the thought of what our nation requires of those willing to serve.
When our nation goes to war we ask our volunteer military for a willingness to die and to be maimed on our behalf; we ask them to set aside their humanity and to participate in the machinations of industrialized killing that is part of modern warfare. Whatever we may think of war in general or our nation’s current wars in particular, the civilians among us must not forget the terrestrial hell of war.
But I don’t often see such a remembering in contemporary observations of Memorial Day. I see public displays of patriotism: Americans flying Old Glory, singing “God Bless America” in the seventh inning stretch, as if such outward symbols were the true marks and sum total of what it means to love one’s country. I see Americans taking advantage of an extra day off, as if the very best way to remember the sacrifice of the American military is to hitch a ski-boat to the Dodge Hemi Crew Cab filled with beer, and to wakeboard on a damned up mountain stream, pretending that gas is not pushing four bucks a gallon, partying like there is no hung over tomorrow.
Since neither empty patriotism nor the pursuit of leisure seems worthy of the dedication and sacrifice of those willing to die and to kill for their country, I propose the observation of Memorial Day be kept this way: we must take time to remember war in the completeness of its horror.
It’s not enough merely to remember the bravery and dedication of American soldiers. We must imagine what life will be like for them when they return home with fewer limbs or a diminished capacity to provide for their families. We must remember people like James, a homeless man who used to walk the streets of my home town when I was a kid, his body in Northern California but his mind still in Viet Nam, constantly re-living the terrors he met in some steamy jungle.
We also must be mindful of the enemy’s humanity. Given modern warfare’s tendency to deal in the currency of “shock and awe” we must remember the innocent civilians who die at America’s behest in every war we wage. We must remember the relentless sadness of those who lose loved ones to war, keeping in mind that the same sadness is shared by America’s military families, the families of enemy combatants, and the families of the civilians we like to call “collateral damage.”
Such remembering should be a sacred duty of every American who loves freedom. Our memories must keep us from glorifying war and should make us cautious lest we march too easily to the drumbeat of military arrogance and cheer too loudly as we send yet another generation of America’s youth into the nightmares of modern armed conflict.