Monday, May 31, 2010

The Meaning of Memorial Day: Reply to a Friend

"In recent decades especially, the connection between American military intervention
and American freedom has become ever more tenuous.
Meanwhile, competence has proved notably hard to come by."
--Andrew J. Bacevich, "Memorial Day for a father whose son was killed
in Iraq", Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2010

Minuteman Memorial, The Green at Lexington, MA

Yesterday, a friend from Continental Congress 2009, who is also a combat veteran, wrote a heartfelt statement questioning the purpose of the deployment of American troops in the undeclared wars the United States has fought in his lifetime, including the war in which he served. He stated that he did not want to participate in Memorial Day activities that would perpetuate the lie that in these wars, our troops are fighting for freedom or dying for our country or our interests. Although his words were published on a private network, they echo what Andrew J. Bacevich, historian, grieving father, and author of the soon-to-be released Washington Rules: America's Path to Endless War, published today in the Los Angeles Times.

These reflections, public and private, have opened up for me the question that I believe many of us in the R3volution struggle with this Memorial Day: How do we honor the loss of our countrymen while at the same time recognizing that the character of America's wars has changed from that of fighting for liberty to that of advancing the interests of a few oligarchs with transnational ambitions?

Certainly the men whose names are written in stone on the Lexington Minuteman Memorial, who died rather than allow themselves to be disarmed, were fighting for their liberty and that of their families and posterity. And just as certainly, we cannot say the same about the loss of the precious lives of those who have been ordered to Somolia, Afganistan and Iraq.

And yet, this year as tyranny unfolds around the world, and the imperial ambitions of our politicians has become evident in a series of disasterous legislation passed, I do not have the stomach to ignore this question further, and distract myself by observing Memorial Day as "a celebration of the beginning of summer", thereby putting the reality of its origin and the dilemma of its current status down the memory hole. I thank my friend, whose identity will remain between us, for pushing me to face the question above squarely and to begin to wrestle with the meaning of Memorial Day in our times.

Here is what I wrote in response to my friend and fellow delegate, edited to suit this post. This is not the end to my questioning, but only the beginning of it:

Dear F.:

In a conversation with a Gold Star Mother from my hometown, I was recently reminded that Memorial Day is specifically to honor the fallen, and Veterans Day is to honor those who served and lived. Maybe, being from the rural Midwest I am too fussy about these things, but I like to keep them separated in my own mind.

As a youngster growing up in rural Illinois, Memorial Day was not a day only for picnics and cook-outs, and it was not a day to celebrate the beginning of summer. Instead, my grandparents still called it Decoration Day, and schoolchildren dressed in their school clothes (remember those?), would be taken to the cemetery, or to the war memoral in the town square, to decorate them with flags and flowers in memory of those who paid the ultimate price so that we might live free, become educated and make something of ourselves.

But my education did not prepare me to answer the following: What do you say to a mother or a wife or a child who has lost a child or a husband or a father in wars to which they never should have been sent? This is difficult, and I believe that most Americans do not know and so avoid the situation that would make us uncomfortable.. And so Memorial Day has become something other than honoring our war dead. All of them.

F., we are going to take your suggestion--no TV today. And we had already decided not to have a cookout. That can wait until the Glorious 4th! Today we will have a quiet day with the family, and think about those who died for freedom, and those who died in unconstitutional wars, and remember that each life was precious, and each one ended too soon. Some lost to the evil outside who threatened our liberty, and some to the evil within who shed and blood and treasure for their own wicked ends. In this way, I believe all of our soldiers died as a reminder, at least, that liberty must be defended, whether from within or without.

We have decided to stop today, even from preparations for the crisis that is coming, in order to remember the multitude of lives lost in all of America's wars, the good, the bad, and indifferent. We appreciate your service as well, then and now, and will set aside time to honor it specially on Veteran's day, though we strive to remember it every day.

And we appreciate your service to us today as well, the one you did us with your post about your own questions regarding your service in an undeclared war.
Thank you.

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