As much as I oppose war, I believe that Memorial Day is the most important holiday on the American calendar.
However, the name of what, for many of us, is a Monday on which we don’t have to go to work, should be changed. A "Memorial" is an abstraction, a symbol, a myth, all of which are distorted and exaggerated by time. Or people simply forget whom or what the memorial commemorates. So, I think the holiday should be named "Remembrance Day" (the name Canadians gave to the holiday Americans call "Veteran’s Day"). It would remind us to do what may be the most important thing humans can do, aside from loving each other: remembering the dead, in particular those of our wars.
However a person dies, the reasons to remember him or her are always the same: We need to respect a life, whoever lived it, that came and ended before ours, and we need to learn lessons from that person’s death. The lessons differ according to how that person died. If someone lived a long and fruitful life, was never sick and died in his or her sleep, we may want to emulate aspects of the way that person lived. If someone dies of a heroin overdose, we might want not to emulate his or her example. (Before any of you send e-mail to Lew, let me say that I oppose any governmental bans on any substance. By the same token, I don’t advocate using ones that have more potential for harm than good.) On the other hand, if someone’s life is snuffed out in a battle, there are still other lessons to be learned.
The chief lesson, of course, is that nearly all combat-related deaths are in vain, or become so in a relatively short period of time. This is a very difficult truth for most people, and nearly all political leaders, to accept. I certainly wouldn’t want to feel that someone I love died for nothing. In times past (and, in some places, times present), young men, and less often women, have gotten themselves lanced, speared, shot or gassed in defense of "the fatherland," "mother (fill in the name of the country)" or the crown, palace or other physical symbol of the identity the people elected officials sometimes purported to represent. Later, the young would get slaughtered over more abstract principles like "democracy" and "terrorism."
One of the most pointless ways in which someone can die is to do so for the establishment, expansion or defense of an empire, for all such entities fall apart and destroy (or, at least, cause decay in) the nations that rule them. Countries like England and France are full of monuments to people, almost all of them now nameless, who were expended to conquer or hold on to Middle Eastern, African and Asian territories. While the ranks of people who glorify those chapters of their countries’ histories grows thinner every year, the aftermath of those nation’s ephemeral victories and (for them, anyway) embarrassing withdrawals and defeats continues to corrode their economies and cultures. Among the countless young men who died on the waves and sands were surely would-be chemists and composers, physicists and poets as well as businessmen and obstetricians.
To the ranks of those aborted lives we may add the ones who lost their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea. In the latter two conflicts, young men (and, less often, women) were ostensibly sent to prevent the spread of Communism. At one time, leaders who subscribed to variants of that ideology ruled Eastern Europe and large parts of Asia. Those rulers also had sympathisers in much of the impoverished world, particularly in Latin America and Africa.
However, today there are but three nations that are nominally Communist. In two of them, Cuba and North Korea, the ideology lives on, at least to the extent that it can be sustained, only because their aging leaders cling to it. And, while one out of every four people on this planet lives in China, one has to question just how Communistic a nation can be if it lends money to the supposedly capitalist United States so that it can carry out its imperialistic mischief and misadventures in the Middle East and Latin America.
In other words, young Americans died in Vietnam and Korea to stop the spread of an ideology that is dying because it is unworkable, not because of the "sacrifices" of our youth.
Turning to Afghanistan and Iraq: Even if we accept the dubious premise that American troops in those places are part of a "War on Terrorism," their presence doesn’t make any sense. As countless people (including many who are more knowledgeable about the region and its history than I am) have already reminded us, terrorists keep us in their sights because the American soldiers and Marines are there, and warships flying the Stars and Stripes are in the Persian Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean and the northern Indian Ocean. Their presence is simply a continuance, albeit an intense one, of an aggressive American presence in the region since the 1920’s.
The best way to remember the ones who have already died needlessly is, of course, to do whatever we can to prevent more like them. We often get into fights and arguments for reasons that we later forget and gain "victories" that are rendered meaningless in time. In that sense, conflicts between nations or ideologies follow the same path as ones between individual people. If we think of all triumphs and conquests as temporal, there is not any reason, save only for self-defense, to put one’s self or someone else in harm’s way.
As for defensive wars: Sometimes they may be necessary, to be sure. But there is no glory in defending one’s self; it’s not a matter of "honor." If you have ever had to defend yourself against an attacker, you know this: You did what you needed to do to keep yourself alive and, hopefully, intact, in the face of someone who would could have ended your life or maimed you. As we used to say in my old neighborhood, "Ya do what ya gotta do" and, hopefully, move on.
So if you want to honor the ones who were slaughtered in the name of plutocratic self-interest, the best thing to do on a day of remembrance is not to glorify it. Don’t go to the parades and displays of military strength or partake in mindless flag-waving. Instead, if you know someone who died in a war, remember him or her, not the stated reasons for the conflict in which he or she died. If you don’t know any war casualty, think about what is worth living for, and whether or not you would sacrifice whomever you most love for a "greater good."
As for me…Yes, I am going to a barbecue with some dear friends. It will be a time simply to spend time with each other, which we all value. And, to honor one particular war veteran who recently died (ironically enough, from a fall in his home) I’m re-reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which, to me, is one of the best anti-war novels ever written. I’ll also reread Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum, which expresses better than any English poem I’ve seen the lies and follies for which young people march to their own deaths.
And I’ll end this article by sharing the last poem from Vietnam veteran Bruce Weigl’s collection Song of Napalm:
Into sunlight they marched,
into dog day, into no saints day
and were cut down.
They marched without knowing
how the air would be sucked from their lungs,
how their lungs would collapse,
how the world would twist itself, would
bend into cruel angles.
Into the black understanding they marched
until the angels came
calling their names
until they rose, one by one from the blood.
The light blasted down on them.
The bullets sliced through the razor grass
so there was not even time to speak.
The words would not let themselves be spoken.
Some of them died.
Some of them were not allowed to.
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.