Memorial Day calls for discerning between two distinct meanings and trajectories
NOTE: Most of this post was published as a "Letter to the Editor" in the Sunday, May 25, 2008 edition of The Indianapolis Star.
CLARIFY WHAT WE HONOR. For anyone who might be wondering: Memorial Day (originally named "Decoration Day") honors all who have lost their lives in military service to America. Veteran's Day honors all living and deceased military Veterans who have served in an American war. I find it valuable to consider the specific purposes of--and distinctions between--these two national observances. Otherwise, they can--and often do--morph into occasions for militarism to parade, reinforce and expand its omnipresence and omnipotence in American civil society.
GREATFUL & DISHEARTENED. I have a quandary with the Memorial Day holiday. On the one hand, I truly feel gratitude for men and women who have died while serving to defend America. On the other hand, I feel disheartened that American leadership has so frequently trumpeted militarism and war as its dominant method for preserving or advancing freedom and democracy.
DISCERNMENT & DIALOGUE. I want to duly honor those who have died in America’s wars without reinforcing the notion that war is the primary, rational, and/or inevitable way to ensure that freedom will continue to ring. For me, the Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day holidays bring this paradox to the surface, calling for public discernment and dialogue.
HONOR LIVES GIVEN. Whether or not I think a particular war is justified, whether or not I think war can any longer be considered a viable approach to resolving international or intra-national conflicts, I can--and do--honor all who have given their lives in times of war. For me, Memorial Day affords an opportunity to express my profound respect for those who have served--often involuntarily, often with grave reservations, often in the face of terrible options, and often with little awareness of how they were being deployed and for what particular noble or ignoble objectives.
A SOBERING CHALLENGE. Humbly honoring our war dead does not, however, bless war. It is not an occasion to justify an insatiable and accelerated level of militarism that more than ever defines America in the world’s eyes. On the contrary, reverently mourning the loss of even one soldier’s life and contemplating its cost in lost potentials, relationships, creativity, and community contribution over a generation confronts us with a sobering, gut-wrenching challenge.
PREVENTING & ADDRESSING CONFLICTS. Instead of glorifying war and perpetuating the spirit of militarism, this holiday affords us an opportunity to contemplate how far we have to go as a nation--and as a human family--in transforming our means of defending liberty, advancing democracy, and procuring justice. War--and those whose lives are snuffed out or haunted by it--gives us every indication that we have not yet explored or employed our best intellectual, spiritual and material resources for preventing or addressing conflicts.
WE MUST FIND A BETTER WAY. Every Memorial Day is an opportunity to consider: given the cost in these precious lives, we must find a better way, not just repeat the past again and again.