Memorial Day: An Uneasy Observance

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.

6 thoughts on “Memorial Day: An Uneasy Observance

  1. thanks for your words Ben. The best way to honor the sacrifices of those in the military is to work incessantlyfor peace.
    Peace,
    Mark

  2. Ben:
    I couldn’t agree more with you. Yesterday I worked at Savenors, the local butcher of one of your idols, Julia Child (I just got a job there for the summer and it is absolutely amazing). The entire afternoon I found myself being asked the same question: “Do you have beer?” “Where’s your alcohol?” “We’re having a party, and….”
    I’m not saying that celebration is wrong or bad, but it misses a large part of the more horrific side of what Memorial Day means. I spoke to one veteran today who told me that on Memorial Day he likes to remember that he is on the right side of the grass today… It is funny and also sobering at the same time, and I don’t think that Memorial Day truly lives up to its name until we think HARD abotu what the memorial is for.

  3. Sarah and Mark,

    Thanks for you thoughts. I’ve been interested in a local flap over a Bay Area hillside upon which someone has placed a cross other appropriate religious symbol for each serviceperson killed in Iraq. Those who support the war tend to be opposed to such memorials, at least locally. Which is sort of strange to my way of thinking, kind of like it being deemed unpatriotic to show images of flag-draped coffins coming home. Sometimes I feel like we’re being asked to remember something that doesn’t exist, war without consequences.

    Ben

  4. Too many people are dying in the struggle for freedom….some are shot, some bombed, some are tortured to death. In my book, one person is too many.

    I propose changes in the International Rules for waging war:

    No one under the age of 65 can go to war or possess a firearm, bomb or lethal gas.

    All warriors must pass a battery of tests, beginning with a cleansing colonic.

    Wars must be conducted far from Urban settings.

    Wars must be financed, as they go, by those who fight them.

    All warriors must take their entire families with them to the front lines. No one should have to wait at home.

    It will be illegal to profit from making war instruments…..Fighter Jets, bombs, tanks and combat boots.

    On alternating years, only one gender may go to war. Old men one year, and old women the next.

    There can be no war between people who do not speak the same language.

    If you kill someone, you must dig their grave and do the Memorial Service before you can kill the next person.

    You are limited in the number of people you can kill. No one can kill more people than you have in your living family.

    Everyone must go into battle shoeless.

    You cannot use a weapon you cannot make yourself.

    You cannot use weapons you cannot carry yourself.

    Before you can go to war, you must have a time out of at least one year. It should be spent in a monestery, a cell, or simply watching reality TV non-stop.

    This is only a suggested and partial list. Please help me amend and add to this International List for Sensible Warring.

    Ronn

  5. Ben,

    Be careful not to mis-characterize the hillside flap.

    The intent of those planting the crosses, et.al., is not a war memorial; it is a peace protest. Further, it is my understanding that the names of those on those devices typically have been placed with neither the prior knowledge nor prior consent of the families involved. If the name of one of my loved ones was so placed with neither my consent nor my knowledge — until called by a media reporter or other third-party type — I would be angry, too.

    I wonder whether the zealots who have perpetrated the protest even acquired the permission of the landowner. If not, then they may deservedly get to make their case in court.

  6. Bill,

    It becomes a question of who owns the story of the death of a soldier. When a person dies in service to his country the story–and the fact– of his or her death becomes public property. No one owns history.

    It seems to me that the Bush Administration and its supporters among the public know that visual representations of the dead in Iraq will have the effect of further eroding support for the war, which is why no one is allowed to show photos of flag-draped coffins coming home from the desert.

    I’m for full disclosure on such matters. The American public needs to know the full effect of what this war has done. In fact, I wish there were 600,000 markers for each Iraqi who has died as a result of the war.

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