I’ve worked in customer service since I was 14 years old, and every Memorial Day weekend, the topic of small talk surrounds, almost ritualistically, plans for the long weekend. Typically, these plans involve some kind of cook-out, camping, or outdoor activities (I live in Iowa, this is usually the first somewhat warm weekend after a bitter winter; we get stir-crazy). Rarely though, do I hear about people commemorating the day for what it was actually intended for, decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. When the day was first created in 1868, General John Logan opted to name the day Decoration Day and suggested people celebrate it somberly and carefully by decorating the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. In the General Order declaring the 30th of May Decoration Day, however, Logan emphasized the meaning of the day by saying, “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” Because of the not-so-veiled slight to the Confederacy, southern states refused to recognize the day until after WWI, when it then became a day for remember those fallen soldiers as well. Often, states that did eventually accept Memorial day (as it came to be known in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson), they preserved a separate day to commemorate Confederate soldiers. In Texas, this day ironically falls on January 19th, the birthdays of both Robert E Lee and Martin Luther King Jr.
Given that the history of the day itself is controversial, it seems appropriate that my feelings about the day should be as well. If I’ve learned anything through years of studying history, it’s that nothing is simple, black and white, or without a “but…” Every Memorial Day has brought with it a sense of patriotic duty; the obligatory post on social media, a few personalized messages to the veterans in my life, and complete revelry of an extra day off work. But in the last few years, it’s also caused a degree of internal conflict and self-reflection on my part.
Before I go any further, I need to say unequivocally that I support the men and women who chose to enlist. I support their right to chose that path, I support their dedication to a calling and a purpose they feel is important, I support them doing a job that I frankly couldn’t imagine doing.
And yet, it seems to me to be doing a disservice to their work to end our conversation there. As that Memorial Day is a day to remember those service people who have died, let’s focus on just them for a minute. To place a blanket judgment over them is wrong, considering they all fought in very different wars for very different reasons at very different times in our history. Some fought because they had no other choice, some signed up with gusto, others to escape – poverty, jail, home, etc. Some even fought against the United States.
That being said, I believe there are some universal questions we need to ask about the wars they fought and the reasons they fought them. In celebrating Memorial Day, we are also celebrating those who fought to retain the right to own people, who fought out of bloodlust and macho pride, who committed heinous acts while serving, or those who died fighting a war they didn’t support because of a classist draft. Yes, brave, noble, honorable, good people died too, but we aren’t just celebrating them. So how to we handle celebrating people whose job requires them, in any other context, to murder other human beings (self-defense not withstanding)? Why does the collective “we” nearly worship service members (metaphorically of course, we apparently can’t be bothered to give them healthcare of financial security).
Memorial Day isn’t centered around a war itself, we have other days for that kind of thing. But it is, in my opinion, appropriate to consider war when we consider Memorial Day; we aren’t recognizing fallen police officers, teachers, doctors, etc. We are memorializing soldiers who fought in wars. Arguably, not all of those wars were justifiable, not all of the missions those soldiers died in good military decisions in hindsight. We wouldn’t celebrate a brave bank robber who died while robbing a corrupt bank to give back to the homeless. So why do we celebrate people who died while fighting in wars against democratically elected governments? Why do we memorialize people who participated in sanctioned slaughter of billions of people for various, and sometimes dubious, reasons?
I’m sure I’ve lost some people in angry fits of patriotic chest thumping by now, so please, please, go back and read the underlined section above. And then open your minds to honestly consider what I’m asking. I’m not saying this is wrong, or that we shouldn’t celebrate Memorial Day and all of the things that come with it. If you notice, all of my questions start with “why” not “should”. But let’s not blindly follow along because of some misapplied sense of patriotism. Is it not patriotic to want to understand the complexities of our country’s history? Is it not patriotic to question the fallibility of our culture? I’d argue it is. And I’d also argue for the continuance of celebrating Memorial Day in all of it’s glory, perhaps a little more traditionally, even. But let’s not do it blindly or ignorantly, but rather with the highest level of academic and patriotic honesty.