Fervent US nationalism made an understandably dramatic spike following the events of September 11. Now, almost ten war-filled years later, we in the US come again to Memorial Day. Established following the American Civil War, the federal holiday today commemorates men and women who have died while in US military service.
These people--daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, friends--died in combat. They died in campaigns of aggression and defense. They died prepared and by surprise. They died in bravery and in fear, in clarity and confusion, instantly and after great suffering. They died because they volunteered, or because they felt pressured, or because they didn't really know what they were getting into. They died because there was a fight, because others planned a fight. They died as part of a strategy, one formulated far away in a board room and another drawn close by in the dirt.
Commemorate the dead and gone. Yes. Remember, too, those left behind--the families, the survivors, the planners. But I wonder also whether we ought to be more outraged than we appear to be.
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I'm tired of receiving mass emails and Facebook posts urging us to remember and thank those who "died for our freedom." The patriotic souls behind these emails and posts are almost always not mourners or even vets themselves. Yet these folks publicly instruct us all to pause in solemn reflection before biting into our hot dogs. They lecture us: because of those who died and are dying, we can sit comfortably in our yards and share a cookout on this day. Had the soldiers not fallen in military service, we would be unable to have these hot dogs. Indeed, without the sacrifice of the killed, our lives now would be very different.
I don't buy the sanctimonious, self-righteous posturing that drives this Memorial Day moralizing. I don't buy it because it consents to the dead and to their manner of death as givens. But is it enough simply to remember the dead? Is it enough just to feel bad for the widower and the orphan? Does a momentary scowl in honor of the mother and father who lost their precious child give proper weight to this holiday?
No. I say, no. No, again.
May I suggest that we have had enough people die for "our freedom," whatever that is? May I put forth the proposition that we need more of us to live for "our freedom," whatever that is? Should we ask why our soldiers--and "theirs"--are killing and being killed? Should we not all read Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" every Memorial Day?
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori, it is sweet and right to die for your country. The words, taken from an ode by Horace, become exposed as a lie. The reality of war and war-mongering reveal that we embrace that star-spangled lie with all joy.
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
But some of us think it is neither wonderful nor honorable to die for one's country.
Do we want people to die fighting? Do we want people to kill others? If the answer is no, then why don't we do more than simply remember the dead? Why don't we do more than just place a flag in our street? Why don't we do more than pause before scarfing down the burgers and chips?
In other words, why don't we pressure our governments and our leaders to cease making war? Why don't we voice outrage at what we have lost in our dead, and what misery their loss has created?
Commemorating the dead is a self-serving yet otherwise impotent gesture. If the dead really mean anything to us, we'll try to make our leaders more accountable for using non-violent means to improve safety and quality of life--locally and globally.
If instead we are content to shed mere tears and to do nothing else on behalf of those who killed and were killed in military activity, then we are like the crowd of people in Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," who ignore the words of the aged messenger:
O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.Every Memorial Day, we offer Twain's sardonic prayer to those we fight and to ourselves. Tacitly, unconsciously, we accept the fate voiced in these words, and we approve of it.
O Lord our God,
Help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells;
Help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead;
Help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain;
Help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;
Help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief;
Help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst,
Sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter,
Broken in spirit,
Worn with travail,
Imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it –
For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord,
Blast their hopes,
Blight their lives,
Protract their bitter pilgrimage,
Make heavy their steps,
Water their way with their tears,
Stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!
We ask it, in the spirit of love,
Of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.