Today is Memorial Day.
Memorial Day has its roots in a time before the American Civil War. Families in the rural south conducted religious services and picnics in family graveyards, where the graves were decorated with flowers.
The first ceremony related to the Civil War occurred in June 1861 in Warrenton, Viriginia where Confederate graves were so honored. The practice spread after the Civil War with both Union and Confederate graves decorated in the following decades.
As in much else in American history, there is controversy as to how the holiday we now call Memorial Day evolved to become a formal holiday.
Memorial Day, in any case, is now a formal holiday to honor the dead service members of America’s wars. And those families, who have lost family members, certainly and rightfully grieve for their losses. There are some losses that can never be overcome, even if they believe the sacrifice was for a worthy cause.
Unfortunately, as in much else in this country, Memorial Day has become another tool used by politicians of both parties to manipulate and twist real sacrifice to the service of the empire.
This country has been in an increasing number of wars since 2001 – eighteen years of wars.
Who would have thought the land of the free and the home of the brave would engage in an expanding set of wars with no clear definition of victory or the means to achieve it? Who would have thought war would become so much background noise?
If we were to be honest, we would have to acknowledge a few things about these wars – that would be the best way to honor the dead.
First, many of these men and women were wasted on no-win battlefields, where “surges” were used to provide political cover.
Second, the men and women who died, while there were certainly exceptions, were victims of a poverty draft – think about how many of those you heard interviewed said they joined the military so they could go to college.
Now ask yourself about how many upper-class children had to face the prospects of being blown up by an IED in Afghanistan? More than that, ask yourself how many protests you’ve heard on college campuses against the wars – or from the parents of these college students? None is the answer to both questions.
The truth is this country’s latest round of wars have been borne by a tiny percentage of the population. For the rest it’s just been life as usual.
George W Bush’s cynical admonition, at the start of the wars, to support the country by going shopping was the height of political cynicism. He should be ashamed of having said that.
Solemn speeches will be given today – paying tribute to the fallen. Pious words will be spoken by politicians and military leaders of sacrifice and preserving freedom. While intentionally unstated, the reality behind those words mean someone else’s sacrifice will continue to be required for dubious goals of empire.
That will require billions more for war, ongoing death and injury for a very few, and back to shopping, movies, and the NFL for the majority.
Where is the shared sacrifice in what’s supposedly a democracy? Where is the questioning of the goals and purposes of sending young men and women to die in ever more locations?
And I guess that brings me to me my main point – the use of the expression “thank you for your service”, which seems to be a way for civilians to handle the awkward situation of actually talking to an active duty or former service member.
Whether out of guilt or misguided patriotism – in either case, likely well-meaning, it serves to preclude any opportunity for discussion or question of the causes and goals for which that service is rendered.
What if honest and sincere service is given in various countries to causes that do not serve freedom and democracy as the owners want us to believe?
The reality is the military was and is, filled with individuals who have their own perspectives about where they served and what they did. Further, all of who served, whether in war or peace, have mixed feelings about their time in the military. They should be treated as individuals and asked about how they feel rather than being dismissed with a casual thank you.
It would be better to ask someone about how he or she felt about their time in service – and in the case of our Afghanistan and Iraq veterans how they feel about the war; the same should be said about the older population of Vietnam veterans.
They all live with what they’ve done and the losses they’ve suffered. And the truth is a very many suffer from PTSD. Reliving daily their traumas and being thanked “for their service” creates further stress, and I think isolates them from the country and population they thought they went overseas to support.
But if you do ask – and you better mean it, be prepared to hear what they have to say. They have seen all the falsehoods, the real blood, and savagery that exist behind the flags, parades, and pious words.
Honor the dead and their families for their loss and suffering. But do not confuse their deaths and sacrifice with the faux patriotism spouted by today’s speakers.