It is hot today. I think my brain has melted and I can’t seem to keep much in the way of “coherent” thoughts….still, I’ve been wanting to write something about Memorial Day since I talked about cakes with my friend Abby. This is one of those friends with a sense of humor “sick and twisty” enough to match my own. She was commenting on the plethora of cakes, cookies, and other goodies at the local stores all decorated in stars and stripes; red, white, and blue frosting, or little toothpick flags. “Wouldn’t it be more honest”, she commented, to have a big green sheet cake with little white crosses or small white slabs across the top. I mean isn’t it supposed to be about remembering those who have died.”
Okay, a bit morbid. I did say she has a humor sick and twisty enough to match my own. But she has a point. As Howard Zinn said “Memorial Day will be celebrated … by the usual betrayal of the dead, by the hypocritical patriotism of the politicians and contractors preparing for more wars, more graves to receive more flowers on future Memorial Days. The memory of the dead deserves a different dedication. To peace, to defiance of governments.”http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0528-07.htm
Yes, we “celebrate” memorial day with picnics and BBQ, with sales and with consumerism run amuck, and if we remember at all the meaning of the day it is too often lost in the never ending waving of flags; blind patriotism and the glorification of those very wars that killed far far too many.
Is there not a way we can honor the dead without this glorification of war and patriotism? It seems to me that truly honoring those who have been killed means taking a hard look at ourselves. It means asking the question: have we allowed these humans to be sacrificed because we are unwilling to change our life-style? Are we willing to consume less, and to share more. Are we willing to challenge our governments policies of domination and waste? Are we willing to examine and to give up some of our unearned privilege? Are we willing to put our resources into building the real and viable alternatives to war and militarism that have been proven possible? ( http://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/ and http://michiganpeaceteam.org/) Are we willing to take the time to look at our own attitudes about power and justice… and forgiveness and reconciliation? It seems to me that however each of us answer questions such as this taking the time to ask them, and for self-reflection and honesty — even when it is uncomfortable – is the only real way to honor those whose lives were taken.
And let’s pause for a moment here. It seems this may be the moment to clarify. Yes, I mourn the deaths of those US soldiers, but also those soldiers from “the other side”. All. From all sides in all wars. A US life is not worth more to me than the life of another. And what about the civilian deaths? These men, women and children who are victims of wars are no less worthy and no less deserving of a moment to honor their humanity. No matter what their nationality. And the numbers are astounding.
At the same time, I understand the need to honor the soldiers. To honor the warriors. We pause to honor soldiers each Memorial Day because, regardless of our belief in the immorality of war we honor those women and men because they died for a cause they saw as larger than themselves. No matter whether they became soldiers to take care of their families or lost their lives defending buddies and comrades. No matter if they joined because they were drafted (legally or economically ) or if they believed in the mission, it seems right to reflect on those who lost their lives in this way.
But let us remember also that not all wars are military missions and not all warriors wear a uniform. And not all are willing to use violence. There are many ways to be a warrior. If memorial day is to honor those that died in the service of their country then those civil rights leaders, and labor leaders and those who have struggled for social change also qualify. Were not those that joined the freedom rides warriors? Were those that fought for an 8 hour work day and the right to form a union any less “in the service of our nation”?
There are so many people who have fought for our rights – fought for “liberty and justice for all” who did not carry guns and weapons into the battlefield but the tools of nonviolence and a willingness to give their safety, their comfort and at times their lives for these causes larger than themselves.
And so this memorial day I take a moment to honor Ferdinando Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, John Lewis, Howard Zinn, Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks and so many many more. Many nameless and unknown to our history books, but none the less courageous and inspiring.
And I know, as well, that those killed “on the battlefield” (wherever that battle field may be and however you may define it) are not the only casualties of war. And as labor and community organizer, Mary Harris “mother” Jones taught us we must “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living. “ According to Veterans for Peace “….. recovery from the trauma of military training and service is not automatic. There are estimates that 20% of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Child abuse has been three times higher in homes from which a parent is deployed, for example, and police and courts are dealing with skyrocketing partner abuse rates, which are up 177 percent in Army families since 2003.The Veterans Administration estimates that 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Unemployment rates have been two percentage points higher among war veterans than civilians. The VA estimates that a veteran takes his or her own life every 80 minutes — 6,500 suicides per year. Approximately 30% of all homeless are veterans.” Want to honor veterans? Work for real health care reform, work to end homelessness, volunteer on a suicide prevention or GI Rights hot line. And fight like hell to put an end to the military industrial complex, stop wars, and support the real and viable alternatives we have!