Distinguish between honoring our war dead and perpetuating militarism
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'll be 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, the holiday appears 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.
God, guns, and guts will together be praised. In the eyes of our youth, a distinct but misshapen impression will form: Memorial Day is about recognizing military might and honoring those who fight for us. Secondary false 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.
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.
NOTE: This post was published as a "Letter to the Editor" in the Friday, May 28, 2010 edition of the Indianapolis Star.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA