Memorial Day In Two Parts

Arlington Cemetary

This essay was originally posted on Memorial Day, 2012 and is offered today (with some updating) as a reminder of what this holiday is about. For more, have a look at Fred Rasmussen’s article in The Baltimore Sun. Some of his data is different from mine; no matter, though, as the meaning is consistent.  JA


1. Our War Dead

It was originally called Decoration Day, a formal day of remembrance of the fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War. The refreshing of their graves was the order of the day. It became known as Memorial Day in 1967 and was declared to be in honor of the American dead from all of our wars. That federal re-naming packaged all of the individual honoring ceremonies for our war dead and all the individual traditions practiced around the country into a neater package, something that apparently was important in 1967. In addition, the date of remembrance was shifted from May 30 to the last Monday in May so that there would be a 3-day weekend.

We no longer conscript our young into military service and instead rely upon a voluntary corps of warriors, leaving the rest of us to follow the imperative of our former president in time of war, that we go shopping. That’s handy, as shopping is more pleasant than thinking about our young crawling through the desert and being shot at.

Then we see a soldier in desert fatigues walking through the airport, wearing his boots, the color of desert sand, his camouflage backpack hung from his shoulders, and we know he’s either on his way to or from trouble and war becomes real to us. It’s already quite real to that GI in desert fatigues.

Memorial Day is not for that soldier. It is for those who have died. What is poignant is that the soldier in the airport might be one of those whom we remember next year.

Memorial Day is intended to be a somber event, a Decoration Day for refreshing graves. It is not about parades with circus clowns to entertain us or political clowns to promote themselves. It is about the renewal of our individual and collective memory of those who can no longer march, lest we forget them.

2. Making More War Dead

If we care to think deeper, Memorial Day is also an opportunity to ask if what we want is to be in a near-perpetual state of war, as has been the case since the Korean War began in 1950. After all, war is what creates the dead women and men whom we remember on Memorial Day.

Keeping our military busy shooting bullets and rockets has been very good for business for the war matériel companies and they would be financially much worse off if we stopped expending ordinance in foreign lands.

Having our Defense Department spend more than do the next 15 industrialized countries combined doesn’t seem to enhance our safety. To be sure, we need a robust national security, but angering the rest of the world with our heavy-handed military response to all conflict doesn’t help us, so why would we keep doing what we’re doing?

If you want an answer to that question, heed the advice offered by Deep Throat: Follow the money. When you arrive at clarity (it won’t take long), decide if that’s the America you want. If it isn’t, you better stand up and speak out, because if you don’t, that’s the America you’ll get.

Silence will make certain that we continue to fill far too many graves with our young and then remember them on the last Monday in May. Too bad they won’t be here to know they are appreciated.

Copyright 2024 by Jack Altschuler
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2 Responses to Memorial Day In Two Parts
  1. Dominick Reply

    Empowering politicians with authoritarian power by our Constitution, but actually frequently not, to invade other countries in order to protect or enhance the business interests of their financial backers will continue to be tragic. Currently, more service members commit suicide due to neglect by the self-serving and immoral bastards occupying Congress than are killed in combat – over 100 to 1 every week.

    Unfortunately, the American voter in this 21st century is so brainwashed with patriotic rhetoric, there seems to be no way of replacing our warmongering politicians and their indifference to human suffering. Politicians with unabashed greed for future favors from their war profiteering lobbyists leave a disgraceful and unconscionable stain on our national morality, but it is only recognized by foreign countries – not here. Until citizens come to realize their civic responsibility to do more than voting in elections for individuals without personal integrity or accountability to them, nothing will change.

    This is why I have created a web site that shows how we can actually hold our representatives accountable to their constituents.

  2. Frank Levy Reply

    Two responses to Memorial Day in Two Parts:

    1) If we observed rather than celebrated the day; if we stood in silent reflection rather than listening to politicians’ “patriotic” rants; if we spent the day thinking about the cost of war, not “our glorious victories”; if we understood the pain and loss suffered by the families of those who died – on both sides; then maybe, just maybe, Memorial Day would help bring about an end to war instead of being a day to glorify past wars and justify the next war.

    2) If war is the answer we are asking the wrong questions.

    While I cannot and would not propose talking rather than defending ourselves when we are violently attacked by another country, more often than not we go to war not to defend our country from an enemy attack, but to defend our power, position, faith, greed and intolerance. We choose war over peace, death over solutions when fail to see the humanity and worth of others and when we consciously decide it is in our best interest to silence the voices of protest of those who suffer the ravages of injustice, greed, intolerance, bigotry, oppression, and inequality.

    In her book, Practicing Peace, Pema Chodron reminds us that “war and peace start in the hearts of individuals. Strangely enough, even though all beings would like to live in peace, our method for obtaining peace over the generations seems not to be very effective: we seek peace and happiness by going to war.”

    Shalom. Shanti, Namaste, Salaam. Peace. Pax.