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Celebrate Memorial Day The Right Way

By claiming that troops are all selfless supermen and superwomen, ready to sacrifice their futures for a shot at preserving “domestic tranquility,” we make the military institution and ourselves ridiculous.

Happy Memorial Day!

Memorial Mondays are not only a wonderful holiday for barbecuing, but they're also a time to remember the dead. It’s one of those civic holidays when it's not a great man being celebrated, or even a monumental event, but people--people like you and me. 

Last week I mentioned that we should think about expanding the roster of “American” soldiers to include all American soldiers, not just U.S. soldiers: particularly, Native American soldiers of every tribe who died protecting the same blanket of stars that we sleep under, the same rolling earth we sleep upon. 

In expanding our honor roll we shouldn’t lose sight of Memorial Day's traditional roster: all those soldiers who died in service to our country--all of them. We’ll get to what I mean by “all of them” in a moment.

First, it’s worth remembering that the holiday began as a way to honor the soldiers who died in the American Civil War, and was originally referred to as Decoration Day. The holiday probably got it’s start in 1864, and continued to grow until it was officially recognized on May 30th, 1868.

After World War I, the holiday was expanded to include the recognition of all U.S. soldiers who had died in battle. Throughout the early- and mid-20th century, the holiday reached national prominence. It became attached to fireworks celebrations, the Indianapolis 500, and in 1968 moved from its traditional celebration on May 30th to the last Monday in May, giving working stiffs and students all over America one of our coveted three-day weekends.

Today, however, the holiday is quickly becoming an excuse to celebrate and relax unattached to the gravity of its meaning. How many of you, including myself, observe the traditional moment of silence at 3 p.m.? Not many I bet--but this year I resolve to.

Unfortunately, at the same time Memorial Day is losing its luster--my son wasn’t even sure what the holiday was commemorating--we have, as a nation, also become increasingly jingoistic about our military and its service members. 

What do I mean? I mean the way we throw around words like “brave,” and “heroic.” The way we lift our soldiers with inflated rhetoric and diminish their service and sacrifice alongside.

Not every soldier is brave. Not every soldier is a hero. And by claiming that troops are all selfless supermen and superwomen, ready to sacrifice their futures for a shot at preserving “domestic tranquility,” we make the institution and ourselves ridiculous. The way our politicians and pundits pound their chests about military service only serves to create an unrealistic image of ourselves. Our national identity becomes a paper-thin brag sheet, a skewed and unrealistic self-assessment based on exaggeration that weakens our national character. 

Military uniforms are a symbol of service, not bravery. In 2006, only 23 percent of the troops in Iraq were engaged in active combat. They are a symbol of individual sacrifice for the greater good, not heroism. Are some soldiers brave? Absolutely! Are some heroic? Yes! But not all. 

Heroism and bravery can’t be institutionalized. No profession can train what is, by its very nature, rare and precious. Heroism appears in a supermarket aisle as readily as it appears in a military uniform. Not often, that is.

Soldiers, the men and women who serve in our military, are, for the most part, just people. Just ordinary working stiffs that enjoy things like 3-day weekends. They are combatants and non-combatants, cowards and cavaliers, friendly and rude, generous and stingy, high-born and the low-born--every single one.

What we remember on Memorial Day is not heroism, but sacrifice. The sacrifice of those who went ahead of us into the land of the dead--that country which will finally claim all of us as citizens, and within which we will all share the same uniform and rank.

Panglonymous May 30, 2011 at 01:25 AM
With an all-volunteer military (small sub-group of Americans sacrificing) and a trend favoring force-multiplying remote technology like drones (heroic pilots?) the meaning of Memorial Day may become even more abstract to most as decades pass.
Peter Schelden (Editor) May 30, 2011 at 07:25 AM
An interesting point, Panglon. Thanks for sharing.
Shripathi Kamath May 30, 2011 at 08:19 PM
A satire that is a good companion to your post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mg76Df0oSbM @Panglonymous, yours is the kind of observation which makes me wish that I had thought it.
Panglonymous May 30, 2011 at 10:10 PM
Generous praise, gents, thanks. Travis' piece, imo, is akin to this long forgotten speech that also addressed the complexities of being American: A More Perfect Union http://youtu.be/zrp-v2tHaDo Kudos for writing it and running it. Some of us out here are bleeding out from a heart left openly hopeful.

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