I remember, as a child, my parents taking me down to Main Street in the little village of Sherman, NY, every year to see old men marching in tight pea green and ash grey uniforms with rifles resting on their shoulders. But they were not what interested me about Memorial Day. What excited me were the pretty girls riding on floats in the parade, throwing pieces of penny candy that we children would rush to grab like the spoils of a freshly busted piñata. In those sunny days of my youth, I had a very fuzzy idea of what war was. I guess I saw war like a grand theater where people lined up to fight but no one really ever got hurt. Now, although I have never served in the military, I can’t get the images of the true horrors of war out of my head.
Memorial Day’s first incarnation was to honor the fallen Union soldiers in their victory over the Confederacy, when it was known as Decoration Day and always was observed on the thirtieth of May. After WWI it was decided that Memorial Day would be a day to remember all of those who have served and perished in the armed forces. The day is traditionally marked by the rituals of lining cemeteries with U.S. flags and holding parades to honor living veterans, a day to celebrate the power and honor of our patriot unity and how high we have risen on the bloody waves of sacrifice. But, as time has marched forth, the day has been relegated to the Monday following the last weekend in May to make a convenient three day weekend. It is marked as the unofficial beginning of summer and in my generation is known more for barbecues and swilling booze than for remembering.
Officially, what we are remembering on Memorial Day is the dead who gave their lives, those who have traveled over seas and through deserts killing and watching their friends maimed, so, as the American Government’s litany tells us, we can be free to pursue life, liberty and happiness. However, what is neatly airbrushed out of the picture is the reasoning for entering the conflicts themselves. As long as the dead are canonized and our memory is simply of the ultimate sacrifice rendered, we do not question the reasoning behind entering the conflicts themselves. There have been numerous major wars since the U.S Civil War: The Spanish-American, Korean, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and countless other conflicts. Yet, our memories of the dead remain static. However, the world and the climates that create the wars have changed with each call to arms.
The underlying question of, why my father, brother, cousin or neighbor died, is answered only by the rhetoric that they died while serving their country so we the citizens can be free. This glosses over the function of our memory to see these wars as individual conflicts with different goals and vastly different roots. The true function of memory of the individual as it relates to the whole of this thing that we come to call a “collective national identity,” is not to simply lump horrific events together but to try and make sense of how each individual event has molded together to make us who we are today as individuals and a people. The present observance of Memorial Day makes each death generic rather than seeing individual contributions as unique to the fiber that binds our destinies together in unique conflicts with specific roots and ends. It makes service in war a single honorable entity rather than seeing war for what it is: killing, maiming, destruction; humanity at its worst.
In the course of honoring our dead service people we never consider those who sent our young men and women to war. We forget the motivation of figures like Lyndon Johnson, the consummate politician, at home with barbecue sauce drizzling from the corners of his well fed mouth at celebratory fundraisers in the company of his patrons at Brown and Root while his countrymen leave for the unknown steamy jungles of a place called Vietnam, a conflict escalated by Johnson, opportunistically, just after The Tonkin Gulf Conflict. We do not remember on Memorial Day those that give orders to the young men who aim to kill, the men who send our nation’s children to war, then hide behind the mass graves of those who paid the ultimate price. Collaterally, we forget the little Vietnamese girl mowed down by U.S. bullets at My Lai or the Iraqi woman who lost her sister to a “Smart” Bomb.
Is it that we are supposed to honor the dead but forget about the living? After the last grill has been turned off and the final piece of confetti has been thrown I can walk down the streets of any major city in the U.S. and see veterans whose mental faculties have been stolen by the horrors of war. They hold signs that read, “Homeless, Veteran, HIV positive- please help.” The fact is that one in three of all male homeless in the U.S. is a veteran and 89% of which received an honorable discharge. (National Coalition for Homeless Veterans) This government makes us feel that it is our duty to honor the sacrifices of our veterans. Yet, the very same government turns a blind eye to those tragic circumstances that rise in the wake of war.
We are not left to scrutinize the reasons behind each military action; we are simply swept into the next conflict in an unending string of wars. We are to focus on honoring our veterans on Memorial Day but who is honoring them the rest of the year? The fact is that we have been involved in a long line of imperialistic conquests for a state that espouses a weighty doctrine of individualism but in actuality cares very little for the individual. Therefore, it is a ploy by the government that lets our children come back crazy, paralyzed, traumatized, or in a body bag while they preach how important it is to honor them. We can better serve our veterans and honor them by considering why they went to battle and to do whatever it takes to save the children of the future by thinking thoroughly before engaging in battle. As a result of our collective amnesia, new wars beget more wars that drag on without us having the faintest understanding as to why we are there.
Memorial Day, like war in America, has lost all meaning. Those of us who sit around with our requisite red, white and blue and gorge ourselves on red meat and domestic brews have forgotten. The individual sets aside judgment, then in doing so we provide an opportunity for revisiting the same mistakes because we are made to believe that we are ungrateful for dwelling on something other than a soldier’s sacrifice, this is what saps reason and drags our people into conflict time and again. We become a society that celebrates heroic military death sending young men willingly into battle, rather than taking the foresight to condemn the act of war and contemplate how we can avoid the death of more soldiers.
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, http://www.nchv.org/background.cfm#facts