Happy Memorial Day everybody. I started thinking about the meaning of memorial day while I was out on my 9 mile run this morning.
I kept thinking about the spirit of the holiday while I waited for my Bacillus cultures to grow for today’s survival assay.
Memorial day honors men and women who died while serving in the United States’ Armed Forces. Memorial day has been an official, federally sanctioned Monday holiday since 1967. However, the roots of this day of remembrance date to the Civil War. Citizens of the post-bellum North and South set aside one day in early summer to travel to cemetery and decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers. Fast forward to 21st century America; today flags are flown at half mast till noon, and most Americans take advantage of the three day weekend not by spending a day of quiet contemplation, but more often by drinking lots of beer on a boat.
I realize that I am speaking in broad generalizations. Somber celebrations are taking place from coast-to-coast. The organization Wear Blue: Run to Remember, which honors the service of fallen soldiers and provides support to their loved ones, is asking runners across the country to dedicate their memorial day miles for remembrance and commemoration (find the link here). However, some Memorial Day events seem geared less towards somber contemplation and more towards selling drinks. Hooters is getting in on the action by offering free wings for veterans, with purchase of a pitcher. Jamba Juice is offering a buy-one-get-one-free smoothie coupon. I’m glad that Hooters seeks to honor our servicemen and women, but somehow free wings seems like a pretty crass and paltry substitute for genuine emotion. Who goes to Hooters for the food?
Has Memorial Day lost its meaning? The silent generation and the baby boomers found definition in WWII, and the Vietnam war, respectively. The current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have proceeded for longer and claimed more American lives than either of those “generation-defining” campaigns; yet, I would argue, the majority of contemporary Americans feel less personally connected to these modern struggles than previously. This is paradoxical: with the 24 hour news coverage we are perhaps more informed than ever about the human cost that war exacts, yet somehow we seem inured from personally feeling suffering.
I am conflicted about memorial day. I am deeply patriotic: I’ve written at great length about why I love the eclectic experiment in representative democracy that we call the U. S. of A. I also consider myself a pacifist: war should NEVER be entered into lightly, war always creates more problems than it solves, even when the cause is just. I have deep objections to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; I believe that the Vietnam war was a fool’s errand; I think that American conduct in the Pacific Theater during WWII borders on criminal. In the words of Mark Twain: “Patriotism is supporting your country all of the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Even if I deeply object to the wars themselves, and the government officials who made the decisions leading up to them I will always 100% support the brave men and women who serve.
I am amazed by the dedication, sense of duty, and patriotism required to enlist in the armed forces. I am amazed, inspired, and also deeply saddened. America’s most valuable natural resource is not natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, soybeans, corn, or software developers. Our most valuable resource is the optimism and national pride that courses through the veins of every American. I am astounded that so many of our young people volunteer their bodies in the service of this country. I think it is tragic that we have harnessed that spirit of service to fight a war of attrition and oil interests on foreign soil. What would this country look like if instead of sending our soldiers to dodge I.E.D.s and raid caves on the Pakistani border we set them to work on getting our own house in order?
The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. I think it’s important to honor fallen soldiers, but why limit our commemoration by excluding civilians? For that matter, why do we have to limit our devotion to the deceased? The spirit of the holiday is to exalt service and sacrifice. Dying in battle is merely one expression of service and sacrifice. As Tom Robbins points out in Another Roadside Attraction, sometimes dying for an idea is the cowardly path:
“You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous about risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ’til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”
I think it is important to honor our fallen servicemen and women today. However, even if you have not been personally touched by the tragedy of war, every family has its own struggles and hero’s journeys. Honor the sacrifice that your parents made to support you when you were growing up. Honor the dedication that your children’s teachers how for their students. Honor your ancestors who emigrated from parts unknown, crossing the Atlantic, Pacific, or Bering Land Bridge in search of a better life and some REALLY great music.
Honor and remember friends and loved ones who have passed away, and do something kind for somebody else in their name. Honor your living friends and loved ones by speeding time with them! Laying flowers on a gravestone is a somber expression of love for the fallen; laying a bratwurst on the barbecue can be an expression of devotion to the care of the living. There is space for bereavement, and space for beer-on-a-boat this third Monday in May. There may be poppies in Flanders’ Fields, but there’s also Pabst Blue Ribbon in baseball fields.
Have a beautiful day everybody! Remember those who aren’t with us, love well those who are, and risk your cliches!