If the American people were at war, we would be marking Memorial Day not with barbecues and trips to the seashore but with remembrance and reflection. The holiday was conceived after the Civil War to remember the dead of both sides of that bloody conflict. It was not intended to celebrate conquest or militarism but to bring to mind the terrible costs of these anachronistic concerns. It’s meant to be a somber holiday, and it would be if lives were being sacrificed every day in defense of the nation.
Lives are being sacrificed, certainly, but not on the scale of war, nor are the current engagements supported by a congressional declaration. Soldiers are shooting people and getting shot, but it’s not war, just killing. Many of the fighters know this, and this knowledge would certainly intrude on the rest of us if, at home on Memorial Day, we couldn’t comfortably direct our collective gaze away from bullets spent and blood shed a world away by people we don’t know.
Memorials notwithstanding, people forget, and, in the 140 years since the first official Decoration Day, as it was called then, Americans haven’t been able to go more than a few decades without mlitary conflict. It’s not that we crave blood, but, rather, that leaders of nations (including ours) crave glory. And so instead of war, our leaders wage a conflict just intense enough to prove that kids will fight and die for them. Vanity is served, and more, as deadly diversion holds our attention while predators rob us. Modern armed conflict unfolds like a game and it’s played as a game, with young men and women deployed as playing pieces and live ammo to determine who wins. It’s a game leaders can play for years on end, with or without the cooperation of the general public.
From the combat veteran’s standpoint, it’s a lot less risky to fight for your country than to fight for your leaders. A soldier can get killed either way, but survival’s more complicated when he returns from a war the people at home didn’t want or care about. The last few crops of veterans learned this lesson the hard way. The survivors of Vietnam came home to jeers (masking shame), while the survivors of the current engagement find utter indifference (hiding behind feigned gratitude). Veterans’ morale is not much improved by Memorial Day observances.
In an atmosphere of “low-level conflict” waged without public support, Memorial Day must be anything but an occasion for remembrance. We can only pretend to grieve for the sacrifices of dead soldiers, as we are compelled to forget the rationale for their sacrifice and celebrate without reflection. And so this is a festive holiday and most assuredly not a time to remember. This holiday is a memorial in name only, and our curious way of observing it exposes our shallow commitment to soldiers and nation.