Distinguishing between honoring our war dead and celebrating militarism is critical
This was published as a "Letter to the Editor" in the Friday, May 28, 2010 edition of the Indianapolis Star.
I love how Indianapolis pulls out all the stops on Memorial Day weekend. With the eyes of the world on our city on Sunday, there's plenty of pageantry and patriotic fervor to spread around. No city has a greater responsibility, then, to accurately frame what Memorial Day honors.
As it is currently observed, however, the holiday appears to be mostly a celebration of American military prowess. Military might is prominent at all our big events, from military bands and troops marching in parade to the latest military hardware proudly on display to a bone-rattling fly-over of military jets at the singing of our national anthem before the race begins.
Of all places, the praise of militarism is included and embedded in official public prayers offered at numerous memorial and spectator events. Ordained ministers of the Gospel, who should know better, routinely give thanks for and invoke God's blessing carte blanche on America's war machine. Do they do this sincerely? Because they think it's expected? Because they're mimicking others? Have they even begun to think the implications through?
God, guns, and guts will together be praised. In the eyes of our youth, a distinct and misleading impression will form: Memorial Day is about recognizing military might and honoring those who fight for us. Secondary assumptions will be implanted: This is the primary way we preserve our freedoms and ensure democracy. This is the way it's always been. And this is the way it always must be.
But the intention of Memorial Day is to honor all who died in America’s wars, not to celebrate militarism or bless war. It’s clear from the inception of “Decoration Day” in 1868 by General John Logan and its post-WWI promotion by Ms. Moina Michael that the focus was to honor our war dead, particularly by decorating their graves and graciously supporting the many widows and orphans war leaves in its wake.
Though routinely disregarded, the distinction between memorializing our war dead and celebrating militarism is critical. Instead letting the holiday be co-opted to perpetuate militarism, let us resolutely focus on honoring those who have given their lives in our nation’s conflicts. Reverently consider the cost of even one soldier’s life and its impact in lost potential, relationships, creativity, and community contribution over a generation.
This 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. 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. The Memorial Day 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 for all.
In the spirit of dialog, I welcome comments and/or questions. Click on "responses" below to post. They're moderated only to reduce incivility.